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Posts Tagged ‘Harry Potter’

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

 

 

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Difficult as it may be to believe, not all writers are in it for the money. (If you’re a writer, this is not difficult to believe at all.) Some are in it because they want to be read, to make a mark on the world. When we watch our TVs and we see the daily parade of misery, when we witness a mass shooting like yesterday’s, we want to do something. As writers, we want to write a story that will shake some sense into the world. And we could, we know we could, if only we could find the right words. Sadly, the truth is that as a writer, you have more chance of making money than of making the world a better place.

Yes, you can argue that you make the world a marginally better place by providing entertainment, by brightening up someone’s existence for a few hours, and you would be perfectly correct. But if you want to make the world a better place, well, then, there’s a book you should read, Don Quixote, because you are that character.

It’s not hopeless, of course. Upton Sinclair changed America with The Jungle. J.K. Rowling has inspired people the world over to join in The Harry Potter Alliance. If you write for TV or movies, you could create Star Trek, whose inspiration of a generation of scientists is well-documented, or Star Wars, with its 501st Legion.

But those are four examples from a hundred years of books and TV/movies. Your (or my) chances of joining that elite rank are vanishingly small.

The odds of being published alone are perhaps 1 in 1,000. You can self-publish, sure–you and 100,000 others every year. The odds of having a real success are small–and the odds of “making a difference” to more than a few fans are infinitesimal.So why do it? Why bother?

Because like the hero of Don Quixote, we don’t know when we’re beaten. Who else can find his career choice rejected 500 times and still keep going? Who else could look at the odds of success and still want to do this thing? Don’t think I have a chance of making a difference? Just throw your statistic on the pile and I’ll pay attention when I have time. Which is never. Because if I did, if I rationally considered what I was doing, I’d quit and go to law school.

But I don’t. And I won’t. Because I’m a writer, and the written word has power. Ask Thomas Jefferson. Ask Thomas Paine. Ask Sinclair or Rowling. Ask the guys who wrote the Bible.

Even if we don’t achieve great fame or readership, writers are like teachers. Maybe we reach only 40 people a year. But we can do it over and over. Forty becomes 80, becomes 120, and maybe some of 120 those reach out, too, and spread the message. And maybe it grows really slowly, but we’re writers, we’re used to that. Maybe someday, somebody who was reached by somebody who was reached by one of us has the chance to blow that message up to where everyone can see it. Wouldn’t that be cool?

And perhaps all we’ll ever do is earn a couple of bucks by making one person’s rainy afternoon a little sunnier. That would be good, too.

#SFWApro

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Since “Dead Guy Walking” is making make its dramatic-reading debut tonight in Portland, it seems appropriate to visit (or re-visit) the question of where writers get their ideas, with the point of view that they get them where everyone else does–from real life. I like to say that DGW, about a man who thinks he may be dead, was taken from real life. This is not to say that I have ever had any delusions on that subject; I know perfectly well. But it was based on a real-life experience, or actually, the combination of a couple of experiences.

First, I once took a bad step on a steep staircase, and by some miracle managed to run down the stairway about thirty feet to the ground, hitting probably every third step, and I landed upright and completely unhurt. Second, I lived in an apartment years later where I had to carry laundry down another steep stairway. Somehow the two melded into falling down stairs while carrying laundry, an accident that could very well prove fatal. That’s Bobby in the story. Sparky, his dog, was inspired by my own dog when I was a teenager, who, like Sparky, lived in a house with a flat roof where he could sun himself. The part where Bobby may be the living dead? I have no idea where that came from.

The point, however, is that even the most far-fetched fantasies have their roots in the writer’s own life. (Please don’t ask me how much Lovecraft’s real life intruded into this stories. I don’t want to know.) SFF authors are just like mainstream novelists, except that we sprint where they fear to tread. And yet, ironically, we cover the same ground.

Because the point of science fiction and fantasy is just like any other writing. In its simplest and purest form, it entertains. But it also illuminates the human condition. Look at how many epic fantasies explore the question of courage, for example. In fact, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter both take that examination one step further: They delve into the courage that it takes to fight Evil when you’re not the chosen one. And they inspire that courage in their readers.

Two of the three most recent finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction were genre works. (Of course, the third, that wasn’t, won.) If there were ever an argument to be made that genre labels are strictly a marketing ploy, that’s it. Even the Pulitzer committee recognizes that SFF and mainstream lit are the same. They’re just not dressed in the same clothes.

And yet they each pulled their clothes out of a closet. Just because the SFF writer’s closet leads to Narnia doesn’t make it any different from yours.

#SFWApro

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Vampires. Ghouls. Zombies. Donald Trump.

Sexy vampires. Sexy ghouls. Sexy zombies. Sexy–oh no, not going there.

This is the time of year that boys and girls, men and women of all ages dress up like their favorite fantasy (or fantastical) characters: the kids for candy, the adults for parties. And everyone does it; no matter how much they eschew fantasy and make-believe the rest of the year, virtually everyone dresses up, or has, or caters to those who do.

Why then, do people who have no trouble making themselves into something they are not have so much trouble reading about something that isn’t? Why are SF and fantasy still looked down on–except on Halloween, when horror gets a pass? And it’s not like people don’t like this stuff. How many of the top-grossing films are SF or fantasy? How many TV series? How long have commercials used fantasy trappings to sell cars and soap? It’s the books that are suffering.

Is it reading? Because a lot of today’s young adults grew up on Harry Potter, so they have read for pleasure. Was Harry Potter simply an anomaly, accepted because it was popular, like a Kardashian?

Maybe it’s the conventions. Maybe all those pictures of kids dressed up like anime characters and Batman and female Thors are giving the field a bad rep. Hey, I’ve got news for you–they’re only doing in July what you’ll be doing in October…

Yes, SF and fantasy are more popular than ever, if you go by movies and TV. But while it’s quite normal to see adults in Avengers t-shirts, ask one of them if he reads the stuff. Any SF, not just comics. Because he probably doesn’t. Reading this stuff is for kids, or grown-ups living in their parents’ basement. (Okay, most kids today come back to live in their parents’ basement, but that’s not the point.)

It’s well-known that fantasy thrives in times of economic turmoil, which explains why it’s so popular today. But other than Harry Potter and the Avengers and Star Wars, it’s still not considered grown-up entertainment. We who know the field know this is ridiculous. We’re past ray-guns and BEMs and Mars Needs Women. We deal with climate change and gender roles and politics. We write romances and mysteries and westerns. We just throw in a few aliens now and then.

Do we need better marketing? Do we need more Lucases and Rowlings and Spielbergs? Or should we simply be thankful for our gains and go on thinking we know something other people don’t know?

It should not be difficult to get other folks to read what we like, just to see if they like it too. I mean, if people will accept this current crop of presidential candidates, they’ll swallow anything.

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As authors age, and pass away, sometimes they leave behind a body of work that their families and publishers and fans want to see continue. The most famous example is probably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is as busy now as he was a hundred years ago. (Ironic, of course, since Doyle “killed” Holmes and only reluctantly brought him back.) Star Trek, originally the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, has continued and evolved well after his death.

Which brings us to today’s topic: the evolution of characters and concepts by other authors subsequent to the author’s passing. Who safeguards the author’s intent (if anyone)? How important is that intent? Does anyone have the right to make fundamental changes to an iconic character other than the author?

Some authors, like J.K. Rowling, take steps to make sure their intent is not thwarted; she purposely added a coda to her last book so that it would be harder for others to take her characters into unwanted directions. And some media, such as TV and film, assume that control will never lie with one creator. But let’s stick to books where the author has simply “left off,” for whatever reason.

Getting back to Holmes, because besides being famous, he allows for an obvious example. There have been spoofs and homages postulating different ideas on Holmes and Watson, but none of those were intended to be canonical, and no one took them for such. But what if an “official” continuation were undertaken under the authority of his estate? (Ignoring the fact that some of the earlier works have passed out of copyright.) What if (taking the obvious example and making no value judgements), a new, canonical, novel set forth the idea that Holmes and Watson were lovers? Does the new author (or the estate) have the right to make such a drastic change?

Yes, social mores have evolved (even Victorians were certainly aware of homosexuality (see Oscar Wilde)), and our understanding of such a relationship would be far different from the understanding of Doyle’s original reader. But would it be right? It’s unlikely that Doyle intended it, but Watson’s notebooks were sufficiently incomplete that you could probably interpolate practically anything you liked. Still, left to his own devices, the author (we can safely assume) never would have gone down that road. And you can extend this idea to most any famous book or series. (Jane Austen: “You tell them, sir!”)

It’s natural to want to continue profitable and popular series. And it’s natural to want them to evolve to fit current tastes. But as Victor Frankenstein’s example posits: Just because we can do something, does that make it a good idea?

#SFWApro

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It is pretty commonly accepted nowadays that parents want their kids to experience a wide variety of activities, like soccer, ballet, kick-boxing, etc. (and even reading), but they also don’t want their kids exposed to any type of danger, or even unpleasantness. Kids are growing up with more allergies, for example, and it’s theorized that it’s because they’re not allowed to get dirty. It seems reasonable to me, but I don’t know the science.

What I do know is books. I’ve been an avid reader since I learned how. My house had a lot of books in it (although not as many as I have now), and no one ever told me what I could or couldn’t read. I tried reading House of the Seven Gables way too early, for example, and gave up after a few pages, but nobody told me I couldn’t read it. (Note: Must read House of the Seven Gables sometime.) This extended even to those (few) books that contained racy material. My parents knew they were there (they had bought them, after all), but nothing was forbidden. And although I skimmed a few tomes to find the juicy parts, I wasn’t permanently scarred. (I didn’t write Fifty Shades of Grey, for example.) The point is, my parents trusted me to make my own decisions about what to read. (Maybe they thought I should read less and play outside more, but that’s another subject.)

Apparently, however, you no longer have to trust your kids. In fact, it is now possible to feed them adult literature without the adult parts. Why you would want to do this is a mystery to me.

Let’s say that you want your kids to read classic literature, like, say, Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote what was, for the 16th century, some pretty bawdy stuff. Do you take that out? “No,” you say, because your child won’t understand the subtext anyway. To which I ask, “Then why is he reading it?” If you don’t allow for the full experience, warts and all, the child will not benefit. You don’t read great literature to learn to read; you learn to read to read great literature.

The first rule of fiction is “Take out anything that doesn’t count.” In other words, only include what’s necessary. This is more applicable to short fiction than to novels (and some very famous authors have thrown the rule out of the window right around the half-way point of their seven-book series), but the rule is still the rule. There are’t many hard-and-fast rules in writing, but this is one of them.

The corollary to this rule is that anything the writer left in, he intended to leave in. He intended that you should read it. That includes swear words. My stories, as a self-serving example, tend to have few swear words. But I have written at least one story where the viewpoint character spouts the F-word almost continuously. Why? Because he’s an F-ing serial killer, and a lousy excuse for a human being, and that’s how he talks. If you remove those words, you take something away from my story–and not what I want you to take away from it.

Life is messy. Literature is life imbued with order. But that order was invested in this world by the author, the author who is trying to tell a story, and make a point thereby. You mess with the story, you mess with the point.

Life is messy. You can throw a bubble around your child, but bubbles burst. Literature can be messy, too, but it’s a contained space where a child can dabble in the world’s dirt before going out into it.

After all, you wouldn’t want your kid to be allergic to literature, would you?

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There was a discussion in my peer group concerning the passing of Leonard Nimoy, and whether it qualified as “untimely.” It was pointed out that he lived to be 83 years old, well past the American average, and that he had, not ironically, “lived long” (as well as “prospered”). Given that fact, although we were not prepared to see him go, we should consider that he had lived well and fully.

Not surprisingly, this lead to more thoughts about death, specifically about those I have known who did not have a chance to “live long.” I have lost three friends from college now, bright people who were never able to fulfill their promise because they left this life too soon. I wondered what they might have accomplished given more time, and the thought reflected back: You have the time they didn’t. You’ve been given the chance they weren’t. What are you doing?

I like to say, “Don’t ask yourself where the time has gone. Ask yourself where it’s going.” And with me, as with most of us, it’s going toward working, commuting, catching up with “Downton Abbey”–and writing the occasional piece of fiction. I haven’t done anything great with my life, and odds are I will never make the difference in people’s lives that Leonard Nimoy made. Few of us ever have that opportunity, and fewer take it.

But that’s no reason to despair, or to panic, because as long as I’m alive, I may have that opportunity still. We look at famous people now and we recognize them, but who on that train knew the name J.K. Rowling the day she dreamed up Harry Potter? Did you know who Leonard Nimoy was before “Star Trek”?

I’ve seen it happen time and again: one day you’re in the dumps because it’s all going nowhere, and the next day you’re in a TV series, or you’re nominated for a Hugo, or maybe you just sell a story, and suddenly life is all about possibilities, and people know your name.

Some gain success early. It may build, it may peak and die away, leaving one to wonder what he’s going to do for the rest of a life that may already have seen its apex. The thing I’ve noticed about success, though, is that it’s never really in your grasp. The success I’ve gained in the last few years would look really impressive to the seventeen-year-old who first started writing sword-and-sorcery stories on a manual typewriter in his bedroom, but it’s not enough for me. I dream of being a full-time writer, but I know enough full-time writers to know that even that is only a step, not a culmination. So we keep at it. You have to; resting on your laurels is comfortable, but it never gets any better.

I’m pretty sure that I haven’t peaked already. I don’t know if I ever will. But I know that I will die trying. And that’s the way I want it.

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