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Six Characters in Search of an Author” is a famous play by Pirandello in which, among other things, several characters, asserting that they are literally “characters” from another script, demand that their play be staged to their own specific requirements. There’s a lot more to it, but for my purposes, that’s the gist. The point is, it isn’t just in this play where that happens. In truth, when there is credit given for the success of a book, it’s given to the author, when in fact much of it should be given to the characters.

When I last left off drafting “The Killing Scar,” not one, not two, but three of my characters had simultaneously run off in their own direction contrary to what I (being merely the author) had planned. One of them was a character who hadn’t even been introduced yet! Yet without so much as a by-your-leave, there she was, tapping me on the shoulder to tell me that this was where she would enter the story, not several chapters later, as I had planned. (The bad part was, she was absolutely right; she needed to come in then, not later. The book is 25% done, and I don’t think you should introduce any major characters after the half-way mark.)

And the other two? They were complicit, starting on a literal road trip well before I had thought they would, deliberately subverting the order of the plot–and admitting that they were doing so! Their little jaunt led directly to the introduction of the third character in no way that I had predicted.

What do you do with characters who won’t behave? They’re like those “darn kids” in the cartoons who do all the things adults warn them against, only to be proven right in the end when they unmask the villain. How can you discipline them when they are acting out for the ultimate good of the story?

Easy. When the compliments and the good reviews come, you take all the credit. You never say, “Well, actually, the characters wrote this. I just copied it down.” Take the glory, and if they complain, say: “Hey, if you don’t want to be in the next book, that’s okay by me.”

And don’t share your royalties, either. That’ll show ’em.

#SFWApro

 

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Numbers, Not Words

I am fond of saying that one of the reasons I’m a writer is because I have absolutely no talent for higher math. I’m pretty good at straight arithmetic, I managed to hold my own in algebra (with a great deal of struggle), and geometry was relatively easy–but when I try to advance beyond that, forget it. Many of my friends can read complicated equations like I read the newspaper (yes, some of us still do read the newspaper, and not on our phones), but to me they don’t even form a language, let alone a readable narrative.

Words, on the other hand, have always been my bread and butter. I was always the best speller in my elementary classes (among the boys, anyway), and I was a top English student in high school. Now I’m a writer. My friends with physics degrees can build models of quarks, but I can build models of worlds.

It is ironic, then, that so much of what I do is defined by numbers. There are sales numbers, obviously, and numbers of reviews (never enough), and ranking numbers at Amazon (although I realize as well as anyone how arbitrary they are, it doesn’t stop me from looking). And there are other numbers, as well–first among them is word count.

When you’re writing a short story, word count defines what kind of story you’re writing: flash, short, novella, etc., and where you can sell it, because magazines have parameters, based on their page counts and budgets. Some are firm, some have a little elasticity, but they all have the limits. You have to know this if you’re going to have any success at all, because your 17,000-word novelette may be brilliant, but its potential markets are few.

Word count also defines something quite different: It defines how difficult this job is. Think about it. A commercial short novel these days runs no less than 65,000 words, and you’ll find damn few of those. Most are at least 80,000 words. My longest novel so far ran 122,000 words. The novels I’m writing now are designed to come in at 60,000. And these words are not random; every one of them is specially selected. How hard is that?

Let me give you some context: The average person speaks about 16,000 words per day. That means that my typical novel is the equivalent of everything you say for four days. And it all has to be entertaining, suitably paced, and come to a point. You think you could talk that way for four days straight?

I do. Granted, I plan some of it out ahead of time, and it may take me ten weeks, but in the end it’s the same thing. The next time you’re reading a book, take a look at its page count, and multiply by 300. That will give you a rough idea how many words it is (depending on the book, of course, but bear with me). Then ask yourself, “Could I write that many words in a fashion so entertaining that people would pay money to read it?”

If the answer is “yes,” then close this window and get to writing. But if the answer is “no,” then the next time you finish a book, take a few moments to rate or review it on Amazon or Goodreads.

After all, in writing, it’s the numbers that count.

#SFWApro

I am pleased to announce that I just signed a contract with Galaxy’s Edge magazine for a flash story called “Reality Show.” It seems that the long-running and very popular reality-based drama called “Earth” has been cancelled. Now they’re striking the set–one continent at a time.

No word on when “Reality Show” will see print, but I’ll keep you posted.

#SFWApro

It is widely disseminated that if you can take the science out of an SF story and still tell the story, it’s not truly SF. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume the same theory holds for fantasy.) I myself have believed for a long time that this is a valid, albeit somewhat simplistic, test. But now I wonder.

You see, there has been a lot of “science fiction” that does not really contain any “science.” So what do you call it? Star Wars is a prime example, with many characterizing it as “science fantasy” because it has the trappings of SF, but upon any review its science is well, bad.* Look at the spaceships: They don’t fly right. They act as though they’re in an atmosphere instead of a vacuum. (We’ll ignore the sounds. That’s artistic license.) And it’s based on “the Force,” a mystical energy field (later retconned to be some kind of micro-particles in your blood, but no one believes that). So is it science fiction? Or is it fantasy with spaceships?

I’m a fan of the 50s B&W monster movies I used to watch on “Creature Features.”** Giant ants, spiders, gila monsters, teenagers… Really, even I wasn’t buying it. But it was considered science fiction. Why? The science was worse than what you see in Star Wars. You couldn’t take the science out to see if the story could still be told, because there was no science. And yet we call it SF to this day. (And yes, that applies to Godzilla, too–all the versions.)

The question becomes, then: How do you test a story for being science fiction if there is no recognizable science in the story in the first place?

I guess you could try to recategorize Them! and Tarantula and Village of the Giants as science fantasy, but good luck.*** That ship has sailed (or launched). Better, I think, to avoid ironclad definitions and hope that the next generation of SF is better than some of the things that have gone before.

Or has that ship launched, too?

*When I say Star Wars, I mean the original. Since the first trilogy, it’s only gotten progressively worse.

**Creature Features was cancelled, and years later, revived. Ironically, the host of the new show was a friend of mine.

***These three movies share a distinction: Each had an actor who went on to achieve fame. (Them! actually had a couple.) Points if you can name them.

#SFWApro

Waking Up to Genius

Although I have famously said about ideas, “It’s not where they come from that matters. It’s where they go,” this has inexplicably failed to stem the tide of people asking authors, “Where do your ideas come from?” (I know, I can’t explain it either.) Normally, I would avoid this subject, or simply admit that no one really knows, but…

Ideas come from the oddest places. Sometimes they are not even fully-formed ideas, but simply notions that come to mind and are written down, possibly to be re-examined and combined with other notions that together compile an idea. Case in point: The other morning I woke up and said to my wife, “There are no baristas in Hell.”

Being far too experienced to be fazed by anything I say, particularly first thing in the morning, she simply replied: “That means you can’t get a latte.” Which, as need not be said, is pretty much the definition of Hell in a nutshell.

Interestingly, I took the phrase to mean that baristas (like nurses) are too good to go to Hell. She took it to mean that there’s no way to get a good coffee drink there (although she said she could easily see my point, as baristas are paragons of patience). Both are valid interpretations, and either may be useful someday, whether alone or combined.

I believe there are two conclusions to be drawn here: One, ideas come, often as not, from your subconscious, which explains why no one can answer the question. And two, it is more important where they go, because two people can take the same notion and drag it into two completely directions. This is why Shakespeare was able to steal so many ideas and make them work. This why all of us emulate Shakespeare, at least in this one respect.

Where will this notion go? Will it go anywhere at all? Beats me, all I know is this:

There are no good story ideas in Hell.

Run with it.

#SFWApro

 

Once a Knight on Sale

I have put my comic fantasy, Once a Knight, a Tale of the Daze of Chivalry, on sale for the month of October for $2.99. You can buy it on Amazon and at Smashwords.com. Fair warning: This is a serious offer for a book that is anything but.

Bruce Legume, the legendary White Samurai, would sell his life for honor. Stephen Legume, the infamous Kid Legume, would sell his mother for a pair of kings.

When the White Samurai is disgraced and exiled (on a technicality), he is overjoyed to discover his long-lost brother Stephen. In Stephen, Bruce finds a guide and a mentor. He gives freely of his friendship and his trust, making one thing very, very clear:

The White Samurai doesn’t know people at all.

 

This is a difficult post to write. I’ve tried several openings, but they all point toward an apology, and that’s not what I’m aiming for. On the other hand, I’m not looking to posit any excuses, either. I am what I am, and my work is what it is.

I write fiction. And there is violence in my fiction. The question is, does that violence, along with all of the other written, televised, sung, animated, and filmed fictional violence that permeates our society, make the creators thereof liable for the real violence that threatens to overwhelm us?

I don’t know. Plainly it has an effect; when I used to play video games, I knew I needed a break when I could feel my aggression levels rising. Fortunately, for me, as soon as I turned off the game I was fine. I am not an aggressive person, let alone a violent one.

But my fiction is violent. Fictionally speaking, I’ve killed off a lot of people. How do I reconcile those actions with my real-life views?

To me, fictional violence is like nudity in art. When is it Art, as opposed to pornography? The short answer is that it depends on the intent, whether to educate (or at least entertain) as opposed to arouse. (Further than that, I will not venture on the subject.) And I believe the same is true of violence. I use violence to tell a larger story; my novels are not about violence, although violence occurs. I try to use violence as a tool in telling stories of romanticized justice, not to romanticize violence (although I agree the line can be thin). My characters try to use their brains as much as their fists, and frankly, I would not find them interesting otherwise. When I do kill off characters, I try to make it serve the larger story. I am not writing slasher movies. It’s kind of like the difference between chess and checkers, applied leverage versus brute force annihilation. There is also the fact that most of my stories take place either in fantasy worlds or another time, giving them a sense of lowered reality, like a fairy tale.

I am fully aware, however, that a reader could take what I have written and pervert it in his own mind to some end which I would find abhorrent. There is nothing I can do about that. The Beatles did not write “Helter Skelter” thinking it would inspire a madman to kill, and no one blames them that it did.

Nor, it must be noted, does violence in fiction mean that only violence may be taken from fiction. Harry Potter has a great deal of violence, much of it perpetrated against children, but the charitable achievements of J.K. Rowling’s fans are admirable.

In the end, I believe only the intent of the artist can be judged (and that’s difficult enough). For me, it comes down to this: I write violence for the sake of stories, not stories for the sake of violence.

#SFWApro