It’s Back! It’s Back!

My novel, To Give a Rose, is back among the living! You can, once again, buy it!

I’m not going to go through the entire saga of why it was out of touch and why it took so long to get it back. I’m just glad I can say I’m a published author without an asterisk again. All thanks be to Stefanie Fowler at Saltwater Media for making it happen.

Seriously, I used to think that once I found a publisher willing to say yes to my book, I’d basically be done. Perhaps there’d be a few loose ends to tie up, but basically I’d have done my part, hooray, I did it! And it would be time for other people to do their parts while I got on with writing the next book. Perhaps it works that way with some publishers, with some books, but in my experience, being a writer is a lot like being a parent in that your responsibilities change, but they never really go away. You’re never really done.

Not that I’ve ever been a parent, but I have parents, so I’m not entirely ignorant of the process.

So, the writing and editing is done, for better or worse. If I find a typo now, it’s too late! Now I have to resume marketing, a thing I do not know how to do, but will have to invent. It doesn’t help that I get overwhelmed easily and stall out, like an engine given too much gas at once. But I suppose I’ll figure that one out, too.

The other thing happening this year is I’m turning forty. I refuse to be intimidated by this fact. Older is what you get if you don’t die first, and I’m quite happy not to have died yet, thank you very much. I’m also quite happy that I am starting, ever so slowly, to stop judging myself for not being able to get done everything in a quick and straight-forward way. So what if it’s taken almost twenty years to shepherd this book from an idea into print? So what if I’ve become a great writer in the interim but have no idea what I’m doing in relation to marketing? So what if I don’t post to my blog and to social media really as often, or as regularly, as I’d like? We’re all going to die with items left on our to-do lists, anyway.

It’s not that short-comings and lapses and oversights don’t matter. They do. There are consequences. It’s that things happen over which we have no direct control and some of those things happen inside our own skulls. Others happen in the big, beautiful world out there, and in no case do I fully understand why everything is so gosh-darned difficult all the time, when it really looks like it shouldn’t be–and flagellating oneself for all of that or any of it is pointless.

I’m almost forty years old. I’m happily married, I’m currently healthy, I live in a place that is not a war zone, and I’ve managed to find a way of not only keeping my imaginary friends but getting other people to know and care about them, too.

Life is good.

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Killing Your Darlings

Among writers, the phrase “kill your darlings,” refers to editing away those parts of a document that don’t really belong, but to which you are attached. For example, those 22 pages of backstory that don’t really add anything to the plot, but which you included anyway because you’re proud of it? Yup, a darling, one that ought to be killed. A darling might actually be a character, or it could be a phrase, an idea, or even a spelling. I went through a phase of capitalizing words I considered spiritually important, like Sun and Moon. An editor explained why I should not do that and I acquiesced. Sigh. Darling killed.

Refusal to kill darlings is self-indulgent, and writers should never indulge themselves at the expense of their readers–or at the expense of the message or story they are trying to convey. You do that on your own time. When you show up for work, you’re a messenger, and you’ve got to get yourself out of the way.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever encountered was that writing is something like exploring and testing a structure, like a building, and that it is imperative to knock down any wall that you find does not actually support the structure–including those that originally seemed to be the point of the piece. So it’s not about denying your feelings as a writer, since you have to be able to feel when a detail has become unexpectedly important (or unexpectedly unimportant) to the story. It’s about jettisoning the self-indulgent.

But “kill your darlings” can mean something else, too.

Fiction writers, not infrequently, write about the deaths of their characters. And we like our characters, love them, sometimes. This is especially poignant when you consider that a lot of fiction writers consider our characters real. We argue with them, listen to them, take dictation from them…the objective reality of the situation is far from clear (are these beings fantasies? Alternate personalities? Ghosts? Faeries? Is their autonomy an illusion, or are they really real?), but the subjective sense is insistent; fiction is a collaborative effort between authors and their otherwise invisible friends.

To be clear, writing a death scene does not end the relationship. There’s still editing involved, after all, and maybe revisions or flashbacks to write. Even after a book is done, it’s sometimes possible to retain a connection with its protagonist. Writing a death scene does not cause the invisible friend to vanish. But it’s still hard. You write the thing and think maybe if I just wrote it differently. Or, if I don’t type these words, if I type different words, this person I care about can live longer. Happier. I am in charge. I could do this. Except you’re not in charge. Fiction writers are never in charge, not really. You have to be true to the story, as well as true to the people in it, and the story says this person dies here.

Fiction writing feels like observation, more than anything else. Changing the plot once it is established in your mind would feel dishonest. You’d think but that’s not what really happened.

I don’t tend to go easy on my character’s lives. Some writers do, at least for their protagonists. I mean, I used to kind of wish I were a Barbara Kingsolver character. Sure, they go through some difficult things, but they usually end up self-possessed and personally fulfilled by the end of the story, with a circle of loving friends. A really hot guy usually appears somewhere along the way. But I don’t envy my own characters.  I put them through too much. And sometimes I feel bad for that.

Many years ago, I noticed a line in a Don McLean song that triggered one of the most productive trains of thought I’ve ever had:

Weathered faces, lined in pain, are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.

The artist in question was Vincent van Gogh, and the line recollects the painting, The Potato Eaters. But what jumped out at me was the verb, “soothed.” If painted faces are unhappy, how can the painter be said to have soothed them? After all, the act of painting is what put those pain-lines there to begin with. Wouldn’t a compassionate artist paint happy people?

Of course, the entire point of The Potato Eaters is that they aren’t happy. That is their truth, and van Vogh honored that truth in his painting. A painting about happy people eating potatoes would be a painting of different people. Turning those frowns upside down with a stroke of a brush would be an act of denial, not of kindness.

Is it possible, then, for an artist (or a writer) to enact compassion by creating a character in pain, and thereby witnessing and honoring the truth of that character?

In that case, I can say to my protagonists, I’m sorry you had to go through that. I’m sorry everything was so difficult for you. But you didn’t go through any of it alone. I was always there with you, watching, and all of it meant something. And when you come to die, I will still be with you, putting words to things, and caring about you.

Would I accept that, were I in his shoes?

I might. And I might be in his situation. I don’t know that I’m not somebody’s character, and that possibility is preferable to some others. It is an existence with meaning. Many people have described God as an artist, so that idea isn’t new or without merit.

If God is indeed a writer, then praying for a happier ending is pointless–the scenes we get are the ones the plot demands. Something bigger than us is at stake. No writer singles a favorite character out for better treatment at the expense of the plot. The flipside here is that pain and difficulty don’t have to cause anyone to feel abandoned or meaningless. You did nothing wrong, and God loves you just as you are. This is just the way the story goes.

But the issue of writing about a protagonist’s death is a bit different than writing about pain, because no matter how gentle I was with my characters, they would still die eventually–whether I wrote about it or not. I don’t typically write about immortal beings. I’m not deciding that my characters die, therefore. That’s a given. I’m deciding that when they die, they get to do it with my company, my witness. Wouldn’t that be a comfort? Isn’t that better? And yet to write about the death of a character I like is still difficult.

These scenes are difficult, but, curiously, not final. Right now, for example, I’m working on a short story (possibly a novella) that ends with the death of my protagonist, Andy. And yet, I’m simultaneously working on other stories in which that same character is very much alive. I can see his life as a whole in my mind, and I can focus on any point within that life that I want to. I can watch his birth (natural. Afterwards, his parents argued about whether to have him circumcised), his childhood (lonely, often frustrated, but stubborn), his adolescence (prescribed Ritalin for ADD, he saved and sold the pills and used the money to buy a mountain bike), or any other part of his life. The are all equally real. His death does not end him, except in the sense that an object, such as a pencil or a fork, has an end. One end of a pencil is pointy. The other one usually has an eraser.

Now, my non-fictional friend, Gary, died recently. I don’t know the circumstances of his birth. I know very few of the episodes of his life, only those which he has told me. Even if I did know him much more intimately than I do, his death would still rob me of further experience of his life, because I can’t experience the past as vividly as I experience the present. I have his letters, and shall keep them, but it does matter to me that I won’t get another letter from him. And yet, since the end of the fictional Andy does not invalidate or destroy his middle, and the end of a pencil does not invalidate or destroy the pencil, why should the end of Gary invalidate or destroy him? He exists only in the past, but he does exist.

Once you kill your darlings, the world starts looking different. And that’s a good thing.

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Lost Stories, Part III

I’d intended to do my “lost stories” series in chronological order, but intention and fact tend to be two different things. And I’ve been reading a lot of Star Trek books lately.

See, one of my lost stories, one I actually came very close to writing, was a Star Trek book.

I mean a novel written within the world of Star Trek, for those who are not familiar. I am, indeed, a Trekkie, of the moderate and largely literary sort. I enjoy several of the TV shows and the movies, but I’ve always liked the books best (original series, please). The special effects are much better, for one thing. For another, freed from the constraints of episodic TV and movies, the books can get into an incredible richness of detail about the characters, their cultures, their universes.

As a kid, I knew only that I liked the books. I liked having an essentially infinite supply of stories about the same characters, the same narrative structure, and the same types of adventures. I liked being able to revisit the same complex fantasy whenever I liked. I never thought that they were all excellent literature–I recognized most as good only if for readers who are already emotionally committed to Trek. A few I considered genuinely good novels. As an adult, though I no longer read Trek often, I stand by these judgments and I am, moreover, impressed that so many authors managed to effectively capture the voices of the same characters and to follow to same plot formulae in creative and vivid ways.

Anyone can write a Star Trek book. I looked up the rules in the early 1990’s, and as I recall, you need to ask for permission from Paramount, which owns Star Trek, but permission will likely be granted if your story has the general structure and tone of Trek and focuses on the main characters. It is ok to introduce additional protagonists, but the officers of the Enterprise cannot be marginalized. You also have to conform to all the known “facts” of the fantasy, as laid out in extant TV episodes and movies–but subsequent TV episodes and movies do not have to conform to extant books, only to the other TV episodes and movies.

I figured I could do all that. And I probably could have. Except that I didn’t. After doing all of the pre-writing and taking some notes, I realized that I was more interested in my original characters than in the Enterprise officers, and that keeping the focus where Paramount wanted it would be irritating. I let the project drop.

And yet the story had its points and I’d like to share it in some form. Here it is.

My Star Trek Story

I forget whether it ever had a working title. Its premise grew out of a guess I had made about why Spock has so much trouble controlling his emotions.

For those who don’t know, Spock is a Vulcan/human hybrid. The Vulcans are logical, principled species who are generally understood to have no emotions. Spock looks Vulcan and strives to act Vulcan, but he has human emotions and so struggles with his dual nature–but even within canonical Star Trek, it is made clear that the general understanding of Vulcans is wrong. They do have emotions, but transcend them through an inner discipline that mixes logic and spiritual practice.

So, if Vulcans have emotions anyway, why do Spock’s human emotions give him trouble?

I’ve always liked Spock. Lots of people do, and I have posted a tribute to his excellent actor, Leonard Nimoy, elsewhere in this blog. I’ve always liked Vulcans and the descriptions of how and why they do what they do. But I never encountered a clear explanation of why Spock’s status as a hybrid should make Vulcan discipline hard for him–except for mine.

My idea is that Vulcan emotions and human emotions are subtly different, such that techniques designed for one don’t work well on the other. Spock’s problem isn’t that he is more emotional than Vulcans are, it’s that his more human psyche isn’t a good fit for the techniques Vulcans use to handle their emotions–and as a result, those techniques don’t work well for him.

So, what would happen if another hybrid had the reverse problem? A character who looks human and was raised as human, but with a Vulcan’s emotions?

Plot Synopsis

My main character, Stephen (a human name that follows Vulcan naming convention), is the son of a female Vulcan/human hybrid and a human man. He is raised on Earth, as an Earthling, but soon develops behavior problems. His parents can’t handle him. He’s defiant and volatile. He is sent to a boarding school for problem teens, but the program proves totally ineffective. Eventually, the staff reach out to Spock, who is famously the first hybrid, and he comes to see the boy. Spock recognizes that Stephen is the inverse of himself, that the boy has Vulcan emotions and needs Vulcan training. Spock arranges such training, and then returns to his job in space.

Stephen stays at the boarding school, and the program is altered for him in some way. Soon, he’s doing well and on track to graduate.

His best friend, however, is doing badly (as some humans do–the school’s program sometimes fails). The friend tries to commit suicide and Stephen uses the Vulcan mind meld (a telepathic technique), which he has just learned, in order to bring the boy out of his coma and convince him to live again. A few months later, the friend is kicked out of school for other reasons, but Stephen goes on to graduate.

Many years later, the Enterprise is coping with some kind of violent crisis on some colony planet, and they discover the crisis is being caused by none other than Stephen’s old boarding school friend, the one who got kicked out. Either Stephen is already on board, or Spock remembers that he knew a friend of the instigator and gets Stephen. In any case, it turns out that the friend became a villain because of his unresolved issues from his adolescence and Stephen resolves the situation by drawing on the memories of their friendship. The end.

Points in the Story’s Favor

You can see what I meant about not really being interested in the Star Trek part of the Star Trek story. I wanted to explore Vulcan nature from a new angle, and I wanted to write about a kid in boarding school, since I was a kid in boarding school at the time. To make a real, cohesive story of it, I’d have to make that the focus, and Paramount would not have approved.

But there were a few scenes and images that I liked.

  • Before Stephen’s birth, his mother-to-be sits in the window of her second-floor college dorm room, doing homework. A human man, Stephen’s father-to-be, stands below her window and plays a flute for her, courting her. No emotion shows on her Vulcan face, but she is impressed nonetheless, and leaps from the window to join him, landing easily thanks to superior Vulcan strength.
  • Stephen and his friends are lying out on a grassy field on campus at night, watching space ships come and go overhead towards a nearby spaceport. The huge machines make no noise as they fly. The sight impresses them, but it a normal part of their life.
  • Spock arrives on the boarding school campus, but he’s been in space a long time and has gotten used to automatic doors. So, walking around in Stephens dorm, he shows an almost imperceptible awkwardness as he comes to closed doors. It takes him a split second to remember he has to open them manually.
  • Stephen walks his friend to the campus gate on the day the latter is expelled. The weather is misty and cold and Stephen feels like a failure. Afterwards, he walks through campus and finds the executive director of the school, whose name is Michelle DiAngelo, sitting alone in a gazebo, wearing an off-white Irish sweater with drops of fog clinging to it. MC sits with her without speaking, and after a moment, she begins to sing “Bobby McGee.” She feels like a failure, too.

Looking back on it, I still like my premise. I think somebody should write a Star Trek book with that premise, but it should be someone who actually wants to write about the Enterprise officers, too. But, looking back, I can also see that the story was far more autobiographical than I thought it was at the time.

I was, as I said, at a school for problem teens. My problem was that I was depressed, but I wasn’t defiant, like most of my schoolmates, nor did I do drugs or engage in other conventionally risky behaviors. I just wasn’t the sort of kid the school was designed to handle, and while I rarely got in trouble, I could never make the program really work for me, either. I did try, and I was trying very hard during the period I thought up Stephen’s story. Unfortunately, no one thought to contact Spock for me, and I was eventually kicked out.

I did, indeed, feel like the hidden, unacknowledged alien, though I wasn’t consciously aware of that at the time. I was not merely a well-behaved depressed kid–my mind seemed to work a little differently. It still does.

Of course, lots of people think they are different or weird. Many of them are right. There are lots of ways to be abnormal, and Vulcan culture itself presents a succinct articulation of why that’s not just ok, but definitely good–the concept of IDIC, or Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, the simple assumption that the goodness of diversity is a self-evident truth. I’ve often wondered if Spock’s status as a kind of double alien is precisely why the character has become so incredibly popular and stayed that way for so very long.

Spock is often used as a fictional example of autism. He may, in fact, have been intended as a metaphor for autism and for analogous forms of divergence from the neurotypical mainstream. If so, he’s revolutionary–because it’s always very clear that there is nothing wrong with Spock. He’s not human, and he’s not quite Vulcan, either, and that makes things difficult and painful for him, but no one ever seriously suggests that he should be fixed. In fact, his being precisely who and what he is often helps literally save the world.

I’m sure I noticed that and responded to it as a kid. Spock embodied something I desperately needed to hear–that it’s ok to be different. But with Stephen I took it one step further, very specifically declaring that treating the different as though they were not different is toxic. A Vulcan raised as human develops problems. A human raised as Vulcan develops problems, but a neurotypical kid raised as autistic would probably have issues, too. Everybody needs the guidance appropriate to their own nature to grow up well. It’s just that we don’t all get it because nature varies.

That’s roughly the conclusion I came to as an adult after reading up on dyslexia and autism and other forms of neurodivergence–my own particular version of neurodiversity theory. Only recently have I remembered Stephen and realized I’d already had the same idea, expressed in metaphor, twenty years earlier, at a time when I knew nothing about neurology, nothing about the neurodiversity movement, and wasn’t even thinking of myself as a neurodivergent person. At the time, I was deeply embedded in a pop-psych worldview and its not-terribly-helpful assumptions. I didn’t have any of the information or conceptual frameworks I needed to understand what I was really dealing with.

All I had was Star Trek. And I nailed it.

And that, friends and neighbors, is what good fiction can do.

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The 4541st Sacred Thing

A few weeks ago, my brother-in-law (my husband’s brother, not my sister’s husband, for those of you keeping track) had to downsize his lifestyle fairly abruptly. I won’t get into why. The point is that we, his family, suddenly became responsible for dealing with his massive collection of books.

Perhaps because he couldn’t help move the books himself, my brother-in-law gave us complete discretion over what to do with his library. We could have tossed them all in the Dumpster. We could have kept them ourselves. We could have sold them all and kept the money. He didn’t care. Whatever made it easier for us to help him was what he wanted done.

And there were a lot of books.

Seven bookshelves, some of them double-stacked, plus enough books in piles to fill all those shelves again. And a small storage unit filled with even more books. By my estimate, based simply on how much space they took up, I think there must have been at least 4,000 volumes.

My parents-in-law were tossing around the idea of just tossing them. I announced that I’d sort through all the books myself, if that’s what it took to save them. They seemed unconvinced. When my father-in-law casually announced that he planned on dumping them—actually planned—I startled both of us by ordering him to do no such thing.

You have to understand that, 1) I am almost pathologically agreeable and, 2) my father-in-law is a gentle and cheerful person whom no one has likely ordered to do anything since he left the Army 71 years ago.

But I did talk back to him. And I did save those books.

About half were religious in nature (my brother-in-law is a preacher), and most of those went to local churches and church members. The others were an eclectic mix dominated by history, Sherlock Holmes (mostly written by people other than Conan Doyal), and Star Trek. There were classic novels. There were cookbooks. There were guides to talking to women (written by men). There were Spanish textbooks. There were at least three copies of “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” And on and on.

My husband and I sorted through the collection together and boxed everything up. Each of us claimed a couple of boxes for ourselves. I made up boxes to order based on the interests of various friends, while he made multiple runs to area libraries for everything else Eventually, we even took the bookshelves—two of them look very nice in our room, the others we lugged up to the attic. We sold a few boxes but will not keep the money. My bother-in-law seems pleased to know that his collection is safe.

Why did I do this? Why did I insist on it being done? It’s not so much that I wanted to have them, or wanted my friends to have them, or wanted to make sure these books could be enjoyed by others—while I wanted some of those things for parts of the collection, there were others…let’s just say my brother-in-law and I do not have entirely convergent taste in books. Those guides to women, for example? I hope those were gag gifts. Really.

I guess I just consider books sacred.

As a writer, I don’t want to see anybody’s book treated like trash, even if the content is ridiculous. That’s somebody’s life work, there. Writers, editors, printers, sometimes illustrators, the labor of many people filled up those pages, and that effort deserves respect. But my respect for books goes beyond that.

Books carry culture, for better or worse. They carry history, learning, voices, ideas. Books have been copied over by monks, burned, saved from burning, smuggled into and out of oppressive regimes, prisons, and the bedrooms of adolescents. Books have both preserved and toppled empires. Books are the medium by which the dead can speak and the isolated can hear.

Books are also the medium of the free press, or part of it. What that means, at least to me, is that the act of investing pages with an item of culture has significance beyond that of the item of culture itself. I can think a book is stupid. I can think a book is insulting, hurtful, and just plain wrong, but that does not give me the right to destroy it or to allow it to be destroyed. I don’t want other people destroying books that bother them, therefore I don’t have the privilege, either. Free speech is free speech. The truth of our culture must be preserved.

Does that mean I think that literally all books, everywhere, must be preserved no matter what? No, probably not—and yet I cannot be the agent of their destruction. They’re books.

Which makes this thing we try to do, as writers, pretty awesome, if you think about it.

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What is Science Fiction?

I’m coming around on science fiction.

I don’t mean as a fan–I was, and remain, a rather casual follower of the genre, the kind who can’t begin to name any current authors but enjoys the material if it happens my way. And yes, I like Star Trek.

What I mean is I’m coming around on the name. For a long time I maintained that most science fiction should be called something else, because it isn’t about science.

For example, Jurassic Park, (the book, I mean) is about gene splicing and chaos theory, which sounds all nicely sciency, but the author clearly didn’t understand what chaos theory is. And don’t get me started on that otherwise wonderful movie, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which is has a plot entirely dependent on an object making noise in a vacuum.

In these types of stories, the writers don’t start out with scientific knowledge and work creatively from there, they start with the story they want to tell and add bits and pieces of science for seasoning, as long as it doesn’t ruin their story. And that’s not what science is about.

I’m not being a pedant. This has nothing to do with insisting on accuracy for its own sake. I like a lot of these stories. But I want fiction based rigorously in science. I want to read it and I want to write it, and I get really irritated by the general assumption that we’re supposed to leave our brains behind if we want to enjoy ourselves culturally.

And it’s always bothered me that I can’t call fiction rooted in science “science fiction” because that term is already taken by fantasies about robots and spaceships. As someone who cares about language, I just find it irritating not to be able to call a spade a spade.

For years, I’ve wanted to rename most of what is normally called science fiction “techno-fantasy,” and reassign “science fiction” to where I think it belongs.

But nobody asked me.

But now I’m starting to come around. After all, given my interests and background, I tend to see science from the inside, a thing I can do, or at least identify with doing. But most people don’t experience science that way–and never have.

For most people (and don’t get me wrong, this “most” includes lots of brilliant and well-educated people, you don’t have to be into science to be smart), science isn’t what we do, it’s what they do, and we have to deal with the consequences somehow.

How do we figure out how to think about those consequences? We write and read science fiction.

Cultures think slowly, much of the time. Individuals might mull something over and come to a conclusion in minutes or days, but get millions of us together, and we need decades or generations to think things through. Unfortunately for us, science often moves blindingly fast. Society needs a way to get a head start. Science fiction provides that head start.

For example, it is only just now that scientists are beginning to be able to edit the human genome. Only a few decades ago, nobody knew what the structure of DNA was, let alone how to alter it. Only 15 years ago, the human genome hadn’t been fully sequenced yet! And yet we’ve been telling each other stories about what happens when we make or alter life for a long time, now. From Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, we’ve had a lot of experience with this topic. Now, when we’re finally starting to address genetic engineering legally and politically, we’re already culturally well appraised of the potential pitfalls to look out for.

For science fiction in this sense to be useful, it doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate, it simply needs to address the issues that science brings up.

We don’t need to know what happens to an irradiated body, how it happens, or, really, what radiation is, to know that exposure to radiation is dangerous. Grade Z horror flicks about 50-foot-tall preying mantises express societal anxiety about nuclear power just as well as a sober story about acute radiation sickness and the elevated risk of leukemia and other cancers, maybe better.

It’s ok that objects can’t really make noise in space; Leonard Nimoy didn’t set out to make a movie about physics, he set out to make a movie about biodiversity conservation and he succeeded. The point of Star Trek IV, aside from entertainment (and it is entertaining) is that we should not push any species to extinction because we might end up needing it later. And that is absolutely correct.

Fiction is, in some sense, like dreaming, and a dream doesn’t need to be realistic in order to be psychologically important.

So these stories about futuristic technology and aliens have a place, and science fiction is indeed the appropriate name for them–because they are our collective dream of what science means.

But I still see value in those other stories, the ones about science as I see it, from the inside. In fact, I see at least three distinct values.

Science Fiction Plays “What If”

In my Author’s note to my first book, To Give a Rose, I pointed out that there are things the fossil record can’t tell us (color, behavior), yet we can’t form a full picture of the past without these details. Since we know giraffes, say, can’t be literally colorless (as in clear, like a glass shrimp), guessing about the color, even if we guess wrong, gives us a more accurate understanding of an extinct species, like the Juma giraffe. The job of the novelist, I said, is to “color in the giraffes. So, scientifically accurate fiction has a place in both science education and in the creative speculation scientists sometimes use to help plan their research.

Besides my own book, an excellent example of this sort of writing is the Earth Children Series, by Jean M. Auel. Although the series includes gets somewhat bogged down in places by strangely voyeuristic sex, and has a few other interesting flaws, the author manages to bring to life Ice Age Europe in impressively lifelike detail. I was particularly struck by a passage in the fourth book, Plains of Passage, about mammoths using their tusks to open up drinking holes in river ice in the winter, and how the availability of water year-round dramatically altered the ecosystem. I don’t know if mammoths really did that, but it’s a fascinating idea.

Science Fiction Gives Us Stories About Scientists

Scientists are people too, of course, but since their minds and hearts are wrapped up in issues most people know nothing about, it can be hard to really get at what makes them tick. And some of them tick in ways that make great stories.

To tell a story about a scientist, or a group of scientists, it may be necessary to explain science to the reader, at least up to a point. For example, Barbara Kingsolver’s character, in Flight Behavior, Ovid Byron, studies butterflies. He gets excited by butterflies, saddened by butterflies, inspired by butterflies…he connects with other people mostly by talking about butterflies, directly or indirectly. He’s also a really neat character. You can see why the protagonist has a crush on him. Even if the book covered science for no other reason (it does, in fact, have many other reasons), learning a bit about monarch butterflies would be worth it in order to understand Ovid Byron.

Another great example is Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. The protagonist is a 19th century woman who independently develops her own theory of evolution by natural selection while studying moss population dynamics and generally living her life. Unfortunately, Darwin and Wallace publish before she does, so she never goes public. As far as I know, she is entirely fictional, but she’s quite plausible. There may have been such a woman. But the interesting part is that the development of her theory is intimately bound up with her understanding of her personal life. To understand her human story (which is amazing), the reader has to also understand and care about both botany and evolutionary theory. And the writer has to present both correctly or the integrity of the character–and the importance of the human stories of real scientists–would be undermined.

Science Fiction Synchronizes Our Dreams to the World

Finally, there is a way in which the realism of our stories very much matters–because certain details have implications about the rest of the world. For example, in The Lion King, the boss hyena is female. That is correct, in that among actual spotted hyenas, females are much more aggressive than males and outrank them socially. The movie is also correct in portraying female lions as doing a greater share of the hunting, while the males are principally concerned with the political issue of who gets to be the pride’s male. There is, of course, much in that movie that isn’t accurate and doesn’t have to be, and the sex roles of other species isn’t directly relevant to human gender politics anyway. But imagine if the boss hyena had been male–that could have sent the message that patriarchy is so natural that even hyenas do it and that isn’t true.

If we tell stories that take as their basis inaccurate assumptions, we will fail to process the real world through our collective dreaming. The existence of climate change, the biological unreality of race (yes, we differ, but the biological differences don’t fit neatly into distinct races), the similarity of humans to other animals, and the existence of intersex and gender divergent individuals are all scientifically demonstrable truths that have clear bearing on how we think about ourselves and our world and how we make major ethical and political choices–and they are all facts thoroughly ignored or contradicted in the majority on mainstream fiction.

It is one thing to use free fantasy to process through our feelings about the world–the 50-foot-tall preying mantises as a stand-in for the dangerous of nuclear radiation. It is another thing to use fiction to reinforce misapprehensions and stereotypes, such that we expend our emotional energy worrying about problems that don’t exist and ignore the problems that do.

It is possible to acknowledge certain things as true intellectually, while ignoring them emotionally. We do it all the time. For example, many of us accept that humans evolved from apes, that we share common ancestry with living apes, and that we share with many animals most of the characteristics that make us human–and yet, many of us think and speak and act as though there were a categorical difference between humans and animals anyway.

What stories might we tell, if we start from the scientifically defensible premise that humans are not alone on this planet in our love and our anger and our grief? That our species has, in every sense of the word, relatives?

I’d like to read a book like that. I’d like to write one, and I did, in fact. I do wish we had the language, as writers, to talk about such stories as a distinct art, and how to write them and why.

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Would You Mind if I Made You Immortal?

In the play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, (a Shakespearean comedy converted to a modern musical) one character asks another, in song:

Would you mind if I made you immortal?/I naturally ask your permission/I wouldn’t want to make you immortal/unless you agreed to this condition.

By “make you immortal” he means he wants to write a song or a poem or some such about her. The condition is, of course, that she accept his courtship. The character is a jerk.

I don’t think I have the capacity to make anyone immortal through my writing (though I always hope!) and I would not use my writing as a means to manipulate anyone, but I have had occasion recently to ask for permission to write about someone. It was an odd experience.

Virtually all novels contain a disclaimer about how “any resemblance to actual persons or places is strictly coincidental,” but everyone knows that’s not exactly true; fiction writers put people they know in their books. From listening to interviews with established authors, it sounds as though readers routinely over-estimate the practice (apparently, once your books get really popular, everyone you’ve ever met promptly decides your book is about them. It isn’t), but authors do sometimes draw inspiration from real people.

I’ve written before about how I do character development. In my case, a real person often serves as a model, but I allow the fictional person to develop freely so that by the end of the process, there is little to no recognizable similarity to the real person (except by coincidence).

And yet I can still feel the similarity–something of my feeling for the two remains the same. Occasionally I will meet with a friend and be startled by his (not yet her) similarity to somebody I’ve written. Of course, the friend is the model, but it still startles and delights me, as though my fantasy world has gotten that much more real.

This past week I had that experience, but with a scary twist. I’d been working on a sequence in which the character dies (rather horribly–being a character of mine is not necessarily a fun thing), and I learned that my real friend had only recently recovered from a very serious illness. Had I somehow caused that?

Of course not, but there is a magic to fiction, a fluidity between the real and the imaginal, that should inspire caution.

Also last week, I realized that a whole sequence of fictional events would fall into place nicely if I made another character of mine the granddaughter of two real people I know. These grandparents will not appear as characters in the story, but the name of one of them will be mentioned.

I asked permission, of course. They said yes.

I need permission to use someone’s name, and I suspect my friends saw that as the bigger, more important ask, but to me the idea of importing real people into fiction is the more audacious act. I am, in a sense, predicting the future of their family–the number of children their daughter will have, the kind of person their great-grandson will be. How dare I?

Do I actually believe my writing matters in that way? Do I actually believe that I am putting real people into my story, as opposed to simply making fictional people who resemble real ones and, in one case, shares a real person’s name?

I’m not sure. The thing is, the fictional world seems entirely real to me. I can hear my characters talking. I can see them doing things. I can walk around in their world in my mind, the same way I can re-experience my own memory. This sense of reality is how I can write. I cannot be sure that sense is an illusion.

Fiction is like dream, an alternate realm with its own strange reality, a separate world that bleeds into and out of ours in interesting and not entirely knowable ways. I am not sure what it means to invite a real person into my dream.

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Lost Stories, Part II

I’m doing a series on stories I started but never finished. In most cases there are good reasons why I didn’t finish them, but these lost stories also hide some gems of potential, some things I’d like to share–and it’s an interesting lens through which to see my development as a writer. In many cases, you can see the seeds of things I have published embedded in these stories that didn’t make it.

The Meso-American Project

This story never had even a working title, so far as I can remember, which is odd given how seriously I pursued it–I did a great deal of research, wrote copious notes and partial drafts on scenes and narration, and spent several years developing characters. I fully intended to complete the story and publish it. I was 12 to 15 years old.

The premise of the book was that there was once a technologically advanced culture in the Americas that eventually destroyed itself, leaving only hints of its existence in the folklore of those societies that came afterwards, such as the Maya. My story was set a generation or more before that destruction. Its protagonist was the “historical” basis of the god variously called Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs or Kukulkan by the Maya.

If this premise sounds familiar, there is good reason–it’s not original. The idea that Meso-American culture hides hints of some wondrous past keeps turning up. I suspect that the ultimate root of the trope is racist, reflecting the assumption that the people of the Americas couldn’t possibly develop monumental architecture, writing, astronomy, and mathematics on their own. But I was ignorant of such considerations as a preteen.

I was aware of several versions of the trope, but was specifically inspired by the TV series, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, which is worth a whole discussion in its own right. I do not think that my story would have had enough recognizable similarity to the series to cause legal problems–as I said, the premise is a common one, and I used none of the series’ characters, settings, or plot elements. My story was set thousands of years earlier. But the historical fact of the matter is that’s where I got the idea.

Curiously, although my intention was to base my story on actual historical and anthropological material (which is why I read up on Meso-American culture and history), I also treated Cities of Gold as if it were an accurate historical resource. I’m not sure why I did that–I knew the series was fiction, and I never assumed it was well-researched. Maybe I just had no practice thinking logically yet.

In any case,according to my reading, Quetzelcoatl (his Aztec name), was, according to legend, a divine king who gave his people many of their cultural practices (including the recipe for guacamole). Eventually, his downfall was engineered by a rival divine figure, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzelcoatl abandoned his kingdom, sailing away on a boat made of snakes. Before he left, he promised to return when his people needed him. Please don’t quote any of this, as I haven’t read anything on the subject in 30 years.

In my story, Feathered Serpent (a common translation of the name Quetzelcoatl), was an entirely human person who was born with birth defects that made him look vaguely feathered. The people of his culture take this as a sign that he is an incarnate god. Although in this society the new monarch is elected by the nobles, not appointed by the previous monarchy (think how the succession of the Pope works), this funny-looking boy is declared the heir to the throne because of his supposed divine status.

The boy grows up insisting that he is not divine, but few believe him. He is orphaned as a baby and raised largely by palace servants, so he is chronically lonely. He’s also brilliant, with rather startling gifts in science, engineering, and public speaking. He’s somewhat melancholy, but an unquestionably good person. From childhood, his best friends are a commoner girl who calls him on his self-pity and self-involvement, and his science tutor, Oeli, who is not that much older than he is (I forget the girl’s name). Both treat him as an ordinary person, which he very much needs.

He grows up to be a fantastic monarch, and also invents a lot of useful things, working in partnership with Oeli–all scientific stuff, though, no guacamole.

Eventually, the two of them invent a nuclear reactor. Shortly thereafter, Feathered Serpent realizes that his discovery could also be used to make a nuclear bomb. Full of remorse, and terrified that he might next invent something even worse, he destroys his research notes and goes into exile, sailing away alone on a boat.

After he leaves, a political rival attempts to discredit him, arguing that Feathered Serpent must have left because he raped his own daughter. The daughter, by then a young woman, denies this and she and Oeli, with difficulty, launch a successful political campaign to save Feathered Serpent’s reputation. The End.

Ok, the plot is a little thin and, in places, unbelievable. I never put very much effort into it, being much more interested in character development and world-building. I ultimately abandoned the project because I got distracted by other parts of my life. But, even in retrospect, there are aspects of the project that I see as genuinely good.

Looking back, I’m pleased by how different from our world my setting was. I set out to create a fictional society that could believably belong to the American, not the European cultural lineage–I don’t think I ever understood pre-Columbian America well enough to succeed, but at least I was approaching that part of the project with an open mind. The juxtaposition of advanced scientific knowledge with the assumption that a funny-looking kid should be made emperor because he’s obviously a god–that wasn’t sloppiness on my part. It was a deliberate exploration of the idea that different societies develop in different ways. Frankly, I think that’s pretty good for a 12-year-old.

Feathered Serpent was the first character I put together by allowing him to grow through inspiration from multiple layers of existing characters–that’s still the primary technique I use today, although now my inspirations are usually real people (the finished character doesn’t resemble the model except by coincidence). He was deep, multifaceted, and relate-able, as were several of the other characters, notably Oeli. I still believe that, given a stronger plot, these characters could have carried a successful novel.

And they may yet do so. I have not intentionally “mined” characters from my creative past, but once developed, these people tend to find their own way back into print. Most haven’t been published yet, but they are on their way.

The Meso-American project was the first appearance of many patterns that have recurred in my fiction.

  • My rather abortive attempt at research reflected a feeling that fiction ought to be based closely on fact–except for those places where the author takes leave of reality deliberately. I still have that conviction, which is why I spent almost ten years researching my first novel, To Give a Rose.
  • Feathered Serpent and Oeli are both extraordinarily intelligent people and they are also both particularly gifted in science. Obviously, I like writing about science–To Give a Rose is deeply rooted in science, as are a lot of my other projects (although the Meso-American project wasn’t). But just as much, I like writing about scientists. I also like writing about geniuses. Not all geniuses are scientists, and not all scientists are geniuses, but I’ve always been fascinated by, drawn to, both groups. I like writing about geniuses, scientists, or genius scientists. To Give a Rose follows that pattern, as does The School with No Name, as does my novel-in-progress, Ecological Memory. I never noticed this pattern until recently, but looking back, the Meso-American project started it.
  • Oeli enters the story specifically as a science teacher, although his friendship with Feathered Serpent quickly becomes one of equals. School with No Name and the novel in progress, Ecological Memory, also have relationships with science teachers at their centers. I like teachers, both personally (most of my friends are teachers, and some were even once my teachers) and creatively. Other people write about lovers or parents or best friends, but I tend to write about teachers and students. That kind of relationship is very fertile ground for me.
  • The whole story was set in a society that I made up. So is almost everything I’ve written since, to one degree or another. I don’t like writing about the “normal” world, although until recently I wasn’t aware of that preference.
  • I envisioned the book as the first of a series of inter-related novels and short stories, a form of organization I’m not sure I’d actually encountered at that point (though of course I’ve found other authors using it since–I wasn’t the first one to get the idea). The idea of placing multiple novels and short stories in the same world but not uniting them with a continuing plot or shared group of characters, still fascinates me. Ecological Memory may end up following this pattern.

The Meso-American project was the most fully-developed story that I never finished, a novel-length work for which I did all the pre-writing, as well as first drafts for most of the major scenes. Nothing else I’ve ever done was that long and got so far. The main reasons that it didn’t progress to a complete first draft were 1) that my notes and partial drafts were all hand-written and my hand-writing was illegible at the time and 2) my mind was fairly disorganized at that point in my life and not really up to writing down scenes in the order of their appearance.

Adolescence is a beast, ya know?


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