About Writers, inspiration, writing technique

Be Ready When She Comes

The other day, this article, a speech on racism and science fiction (dating back to 1998, no less), surfaced in my Facebook feed. I’d never seen it before but, being a Samuel Delany fan from way back, I dug right in.

Before I had even cleared the first third of it, I found myself hurriedly putting it aside to work on the second draft of my own current WIP. The damned thing had been fighting me hard—not because the plot or characters were in any way unclear in my mind, but there was simply no consistent voice yet. WIP’s come in all forms, and they all fight us to some extent, but this one had been particularly tough—petulant, thorny, recalcitrant—it had resisted all my efforts to get a groove going. The novel, typically, didn’t care about what I was trying to do. I hadn’t gotten her attention yet.

Somewhere between George Schuyler’s horrific and ironic description of a lynching and Delany’s own telling of his first pointedly racist rejection letter, I hit pay dirt. All at once, I had a new beginning for the first chapter, and with it, a new sense of where I was going and why I was going there. My bristly companion was suddenly purring and eager, both soothed and enlivened by the fact that I was finally doing something it liked.

What had changed? There is nothing in my book that relates directly to what Delany was talking about. It is not about racism. It certainly isn’t science fiction. It doesn’t take place during the time period he is mostly talking about. (The article, by the way, is well worth the read.) Yet somehow, despite the lack of relevance, something sparked. Some bit of current leaped a nineteen year gap and jumpstarted my always dubious creative process.

That’s an off-the-cuff metaphor, but it’s an apt one.

My admiration for Delany is nearly boundless. Indeed, I think he is one of the finest writers of the second half of the 20th Century. His voice was both clear and curious, earnest and playful. He wrote beautiful sentences. He took science fiction seriously while still regarding all labels warily.

The muse (and I use the term reluctantly) cannot be coaxed or coddled. She appears when she will, without warning or reason, in whatever motley garb the moment might supply—a blaze of light, a scrabbling at the window, the tickle of hairs rising on the back of your neck. Being divine in nature, she rarely speaks anything like sense. In fact, she often says nothing at all. But her mere presence, even fleeting and uncertain, can awaken that starburst of astonishment. You do know what you’re doing. Actually, you’re doing it already.

It has been said that the only way to court the muse is by doing the work at hand. Let her find you writing. I’m not sanguine about that. It seems to me, we often labor along without her help for long dark days or seasons. Writing when you are not inspired is the norm, not the exception, at least for me. But at the very least, if you are writing, then maybe you will be ready when she appears, if she appears. Try being in the right place at the right time. It couldn’t hurt.

Meanwhile, inspiration goes as abruptly as she comes. So when she shows, burn whatever oil you have to keep the lights on. Give her anything she wants. And write.

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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.

 

1:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

(break)

I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the

2:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

(break)

Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.

3:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

(break)

Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.

 

4:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 

(break)

So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.

 

5:

I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?

(break)

I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)

6:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(break)

Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?

 

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About Writers

Twenty-Three Rules for Writers

The muse babbles, as she usually does. Crouched on my kitchen table, she scrapes a long crumpled feather smooth, then clacks the stony hinge of her beak.

I retrieve a pair of mismatched tumblers from the drainboard and crack open a bottle of J.T.S. Brown. Straight up, no ice. She never takes ice. I wait, sipping, while she slurps, her black tongue lapping in noisy swipes. Once, I would’ve waited with pen clicked, notebook ready. Now I just wait, knowing better.

These late night sessions used to be more frequent. It seemed I could almost conjure her appearance by act of will. But they were never what I thought they ought to be. Like a lot of writers, I always imagined the muse dictating stories in my ear, using me as a vehicle for her divine inspiration. Only my muse isn’t like that. I have to be the one who, between drinks, coaxes her back to the table and gets her talking again. But nothing she says ever really makes sense. Her stories are tangled skeins; her language is an obscure bramble. Half the time, it’s pure gibbering. I’m never entirely sure that she isn’t just yanking my chain.

And that’s the problem with divine beings. To her, you are the illusion, you are the dream. It’s no certainty that she’s even noticed you.

So I don’t hope for stories or sense anymore. I don’t take notes. I don’t toil long into the night after she leaves, burning with vision. Maybe, days later, I’ll remember some phrase, some notion which seems to have no point of origin, no history. Maybe she didn’t even say it, but it had to come from somewhere. I only know it might be important because I can’t quite put it out of my mind.

So I thought I’d share a few here, in this pleasant purgatory. Frangible axioms of dubious origin. Inscrutable proverbs. I collect them, doncha know. I figure they might prove useful one day, when I’m beating my head against some stubborn hedge of verbiage, or trying to thread an impossible prosodic needle.

Apply at your own risk.

Twenty-Three Rules for Writing:

1. Holes. It needs more holes.
2. Time is an exquisite, aching mirage.
3. Celebrate evanescent things.
4. It is, just maybe, possible.
5. Hew doggedly to the wrong path.
6. Make mouths in the wall so it can speak more light.
7. All desire is holy—and indecent.
8. Jump off the cliff.
9. Admit nothing.
10. Crack the door open; don’t go in.
11. Only details.
12. Defend the indefensible.
13. Sneak out the back door; re-enter through the skylight, shattering.
14. You don’t have to give them anything.
15. You have to give them everything.
16. Words will waste you, pal.
17. Gather tiny miracles.
18. It’s already broken. You can’t make it any more broken.
19. Add clutter.
20. Vamp for a while.
21. Sing into the handsome demon’s mouth.
22. Dream in the face of oblivion.
23. End it here. End it now.

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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Orson Welles With His Mouth Full of Crackers

The other day, someone on Facebook posted this challenge: “Quick, without thinking about it too hard, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?”

I didn’t think about it too hard. What popped into my mind was: “He had a voice like Orson Welles with a mouthful of crackers.”

I knew it was from Raymond Chandler. It pretty much had to be. After a little digging through the dusty paperbacks, I found it: The Little Sister, Chapter 15.

If you’ve never read The Little Sister, I envy you a little. (Also, why the hell not?) It was Chandler’s fifth novel, and he was at the peak of his form. It may not have been his most elegantly written or most cleverly plotted, but that thing is bursting with gonzo energy.

It is, in modern parlance, cray.

It was Chandler’s Hollywood novel—swimming pools, movie stars, a guy running around sticking icepicks into people. Typical stuff. But this is Chandler. What matters is the writing, specifically the dialogue. Most specifically, the dialogue between Phillip Marlowe and Orfamay Quest, the prim, mousy girl from Manhattan, Kansas, who has come to Los Angeles to find her brother, Orrin. Everything about the case seems wrong to Marlowe, but he doesn’t have anything else to do. After much back and forth, he manages to pry a 20-dollar retainer from her tight little fist and sets off to find her brother.

I don’t want to give you any more of the story than that. Instead, I want to look at one chapter, number 15 to be exact. I could just say “go here and read it” but that wouldn’t make much of a post. For no other goddamned good reason other than my own self-indulgence, I present the entire chapter (Canadian Public Domain version) only slightly annotated. I hope you enjoy it:

Chapter Fifteen
She came in briskly enough this time. Her motions were small and quick and determined. There was one of those thin little, bright little smiles on her face. She put her bag down firmly, settled herself in the customer’s chair and went on smiling.

(I love the energy of this description. We’ve met Orfamay already, way back in Chapter One, but we don’t know what to make of her yet. The tumble of adjectives—small, quick, determined—and especially the wonderful cluster “thin little, bright little”—puts us on our guard. They are sharp and bristly. Orfamay is not to be trifled with, no matter how innocuous and innocent she may pretend to be.)

“It’s nice of you to wait for me,” she said. “I bet you haven’t had your dinner yet, either.”

“Wrong,” I said. “I have had my dinner. I am now drinking whiskey. You don’t approve of whiskey-drinking do you?” (Marlowe is ready to spar.)

“I certainly do not.” (So is she.)

“That’s just dandy,” I said. “I hoped you hadn’t changed your mind.” I put the bottle up on the desk and poured myself another slug. I drank a little of it and gave her a leer above the glass. (There is a game going on. It is not the game Orfamay thinks it is. Ultimately, it isn’t quite what Marlowe thinks it is either.)

“If you keep on with that you won’t be in any condition to listen to what I have to say,” she snapped.

“About this murder,” I said. “Anybody I know? I can see you’re not murdered—yet.”

“Please don’t be unnecessarily horrid. It’s not my fault. You doubted me over the telephone so I had to convince you. Orrin did call me up. But he wouldn’t tell me where he was or what he was doing. I don’t know why.”

“He wanted you to find out for yourself,” I said. “He’s building your character.”

“That’s not funny. It’s not even smart.”

“But you’ve got to admit it’s nasty,” I said. “Who was murdered? Or is that a secret too?”

She fiddled a little with her bag, not enough to overcome her embarrassment, because she wasn’t embarrassed. But enough to needle me into taking another drink. (The nimbleness of Chandler’s prose is awe-inspiring. He establishes character with such quick strokes.)

“That horrid man in the rooming house was murdered. Mr.—Mr.—I forget his name.”

“Let’s both forget it,” I said. “Let’s do something together for once.” I dropped the whiskey bottle into the desk drawer and stood up. “Look, Orfamay, I’m not asking you how you know all this. Or rather how Orrin knows it all. Or if he does know it. You’ve found him. That’s what you wanted me to do. Or he’s found you, which comes to the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing,” she cried. “I haven’t really found him. He wouldn’t tell me where he was living.” (This is important to the bigger plot. Orfamay has presented herself as the caring sister, tracking down the wild brother who really needs to just come back to Kansas and be nurtured in the bosom of his loving family. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her insistence that “he wouldn’t tell me anything,” hints deftly at her real reason for being there.)

“Well if it is anything like the last place, I don’t blame him.”

She set her lips in a firm line of distaste. “He wouldn’t tell me anything really.”

“Just about murders,” I said. “Trifles like that.”

She laughed bubblingly. “I just said that to scare you. I don’t really mean anybody was murdered, Mr. Marlowe. You sounded so cold and distant. I thought you wouldn’t help me any more. And—well, I just made it up.” (A nice feint from Orfamay, but Marlowe isn’t buying.)

I took a couple of deep breaths and looked down at my hands. I straightened out the fingers slowly. Then I stood up. I didn’t say anything. (The drama of the sentences is understated and yet perfectly clear. No explication. No internal monologue.)

“Are you mad at me?” she asked timidly, making a little circle on the desk with the point of a finger. (Still dancing.)

“I ought to slap your face off,” I said. “And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I’d slap.”

Her breath caught with a jerk. “Why, how dare you!” (Her favorite counter-punch, but even she knows it’s a not a haymaker. She’s just playing for time.)

“You used that line,” I said. “You used it too often. Shut up and get the hell out of here. Do you think I enjoy being dared to death? Oh—there’s this.” I yanked a drawer open, got out her twenty dollars and threw them down in front of her. “Take this money away. Endow a hospital or a research laboratory with it. It makes me nervous having it around.” (Love that bit.  Even in 1940, twenty bucks wasn’t a real retainer, certainly not for the amount of time he’s already put into the case. But the dirty secrets of the Quest family have everything to do with money, and Marlowe’s hip to that already.)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering. “Goodness,” she said, assembling her handbag with a nice dignity.  (Assembling. Nice.)  “I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.”

“That’s just an act,” I growled, moving around the desk. She leaned back in her chair away from me. “I’m only tough with little girls like you that don’t let their fingernails grow too long. I’m all mush inside.” I took hold of her arm and yanked her to her feet. Her head went back. Her lips parted. I was hell with the women that day. (Classic Chandler.)

“But you will find Orrin for me, won’t you?” she whispered. “It was all a lie. Everything I’ve told you was a lie. He didn’t call me up. I—I don’t know anything.” (Even when she’s leveling with him, she’s still playing him.)

“Perfume,” I said sniffing. “Why, you little darling. You put perfume behind your ears—and all for me!”

She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. “Take my glasses off,” she whispered, “Philip. I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while. Really I don’t.”

Our faces were about six inches apart. I was afraid to take her glasses off. I might have socked her on the nose.  (Fantastic. Marlowe was such a perfect confusion of tough, cynical veneer and soft, almost prudish, interior. Humanity tends to disappoint him, but he’s too much of a romantic to ever truly give up on it.)

“Yes,” I said in a voice that sounded like Orson Welles with his mouth full of crackers. “I’ll find him for you, honey, if he’s still alive. And for free. Not a dime of expense involved. I only ask one thing.”

“What, Philip?” she asked softly and opened her lips a little wider.

“Who was the black sheep in your family?” (Finally. Marlowe is not the know-it-all, smart guy, love-em-and leave-em detective. He’s actually is a nice guy. We’ve know him for four novels now. If he’s sparring with Orfamay, it’s because he knows that she’s more dangerous than she appears. Not that there isn’t some genuine feeling when she says “Take my glasses off… I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while.” In some ways, she really is the innocent, at least about matters of the heart. She really does want Marlowe to kiss her. But she’s also running a different game, and Marlowe knows it. He’s just not sure what it is.)
She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me. (Also a classic Chandlerism.) She stared at me stony-faced.

“You said Orrin wasn’t the black sheep in your family. Remember? With a very peculiar emphasis. And when you mentioned your sister Leila, you sort of passed on quickly as if the subject was distasteful.”

“I—I don’t remember saying anything like that,” she said very slowly.

“So I was wondering,” I said. “What name does your sister Leila use in pictures?”

“Pictures?” she sounded vague. “Oh you mean motion pictures? Why I never said she was in pictures. I never said anything about her like that.”

I gave her my big homely lopsided grin. She suddenly flew into a rage.

“Mind your own business about my sister Leila,” she spit at me. “You leave my sister Leila out of your dirty remarks.”

“What dirty remarks?” I asked. “Or should I try to guess?”

“All you think about is liquor and women,” she screamed. “I hate you!” She rushed to the door and yanked it open and went out. She practically ran down the hall.

I went back around my desk and slumped into the chair. A very strange little girl. Very strange indeed. (That’s an understatement. In spite of everything, Orfamay intrigues him. He’s even a little touched by her. He’s in shopworn Galahad mode again, only this time around, the damsel isn’t really in distress.)

After a while the phone started ringing again, as it would. On the fourth ring I leaned my head on my hand and groped for it, fumbled it to my face.  (Love that.)

“Utter McKinley Funeral Parlors,” I said.

A female voice said: “Wha-a-t?” and went off into a shriek of laughter. That one was a riot at the police smoker in 1921. What a wit. Like a hummingbird’s beak. I put the lights out and went home.

(I always thought this was just a nonsense joke but Utter McKinley Mortuaries still exist, a fair number of them, around the Southern California area.)

And THAT is the entire chapter. I urge you to go read the whole book. You won’t be sorry you did.

Meanwhile, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?

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book promotion, book reviews

Ten Thousand Page-Reads. (Or K.U. For Dummies)

The title of is this post is possibly enigmatic to most, but to anyone who has a book or books signed up on Kindle Unlimited, the reference is clear.

What’s a page-read? What’s Kindle Unlimited?

Okay. For those who don’t know already: when you publish an eBook on Amazon, you have the option of signing it up with Kindle Unlimited. That means Kindle Unlimited subscribers—for a ten dollar monthly fee—can download and read your book for free, (as well as all the other eBooks signed up with Kindle Unlimited) and you, the author, receive a payment for each page read.

Yes, they can keep track. No, you probably don’t want to think too hard about that.

How much per page? Amazon sets a new rate every month, but then it also adds a certain amount from the Kindle Direct Publishing Select Global Fund (which—if I understand it correctly— is based on the total number of pages read of all KU books by all KU subscribers.) Bottom line? It varies slightly from month to month, but as a ballpark figure, I assume about 45% of a penny per page. And, KU is actually fairly generous in the way it counts page reads. My book Spark runs 345 pages in paperback. KU counts it as 408 pages. (For the record, a complete read of Spark on KU earns me about $1.80. Selling the ebook earns me about $2 in royalties.)

One important rule: if your ebook is signed up for Kindle Unlimited, it must be exclusive to Amazon. You cannot sell it on Kobo or Barnes and Noble or Smashwords or anywhere else. For many authors, this is a deal breaker. It’s also the reason why most actual publishers do not use it. They don’t want to cut off any potential sales avenues.

In practice, KU is made for independent publishers. And while exclusivity may be distasteful for some authors, most ebooks sold in the global marketplace are sold through Amazon. (I heard 70% somewhere, but don’t ask me to back that up.) Personally, I didn’t find it a difficult decision. I am happy to have my independent titles on KU.

Being signed up with KU also allows you to run promotions, including making the book free for up to five days out of every ninety. If you promote your giveaway, you can end up with thousands of downloads. Both times I’ve given Spark away, I’ve topped 3,000 downloads. This may not seem like anything to crow about, (and I’ll address that question further on). But let me just focus first on the immediate results of that kind of giveaway. Both times, it has resulted in a small sales spike after the giveaway. (Very small in real numbers. The first time I think I sold 12 copies, the second time only eight. But compared to my normal sales, which can include months of goose eggs, it’s a spike.)

In addition, giveaways get me page-reads on KU. Faced with a temporarily free ebook, some subscribers choose to download it through KU rather than downloading it for free. It makes no difference to them, I suppose. It’s free either way. But it makes a big difference for the author. During the month following my last giveaway, I topped 10,000 page-reads. This is roughly equivalent to 25 people reading my book all the way through. It also means I made about $45 in royalties.

Now just for a bracing dose of reality, I know most of the 3000 people who download my book onto their Kindle or their cell phone are NOT going to read it. A lot of those folks have hundreds of free books stored up on their devices, and they keep adding new ones, which probably only serves to bump the older books lower on the priority list (newer books are shinier books). The only reads that we can be sure of are the ones that come through KU and the ones that leave a review, or at least a rating, on Amazon or Goodreads.

My giveaways have generated a few reviews on Amazon and some ratings on Goodreads, but very few. Reviews are rare enough anyway, but I think they are even rarer for readers who download the books for free. I had a review of Flight of the Wren after my last giveaway of that book—a terrific review—that actually said:

“This is a great book! Usually I don’t write reviews for the free/cheap books I get from the various email groups because they are not usually worth reviewing.”

It’s just human nature, I guess. We tend to value things in direct relation to the price we pay for them, and we sometimes assume that free stuff is free because nobody would pay for it. So the whole giveaway thing is not an unqualified positive. Sure, I would prefer it if people were buying the books and lavishing me with reviews, but that ain’t happening. At least this way, there are people reading the books. Some of those people are going to like them and will maybe read the next one.

Some of them might even pay real money for the privilege. Crazy, I know, but it could happen.

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Research, world-building, writing technique

So You Want To Build A World

“You see, to be quite frank Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It tbpolaroidwas a bit of a botch job you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that’s where this comes in. This is the only map of all the holes. Well, why repair them? Why not use ‘em to get stinking rich?”

–Randall from Time Bandit

 

So you want to build a world, eh? Are you ready to be God? Because that’s what you’re doing. Creating a world, populated with millions of beings. They’re your responsibility now. What happens to them—well, that’s on you, isn’t it? And more than that, you owe it to your readers to create a functional world, an elegant mechanism guided by a clear plan and exquisite craftsmanship, a Swiss watch kind of a world.

Or—maybe not.

I know. A lot of writers LOVE world building. They revel in creating dossiers, elaborate histories, mythologies—even whole languages. It’s part of the fun. And backstory can certainly add depth and richness to a narrative, making it more believable, more real, more engaging.

But how much is really necessary? All fiction writing is world building. You set the stage, you paint the backdrops, you provide the props. You populate that world with living, breathing people, give them history, put flesh on those dry paper bones so that they rise up off the page. And no matter how closely your fictional environs hew to the real, recognizable world, it is new. You built it.

Of course, mostly when writers talk about world building, they mean a different world, and more often than not, they mean speculative fiction. I’m including fantasy under that label, as well as science fiction. Fantasy, of course, is replete with maps and legends. Sci-Fi is lousy with parallel histories (what if the Dutch empire never fell?) and distant planets where the not-quite humans behave in curiously human-like ways.

It’s tempting to want to create full and complex histories for your worlds, those impeccable mechanisms, but how much of that is really necessary? Elaborate backstory may engage you, the author, but how much does the reader really want? Or need?

Generally, it’s the small details that grab our attention and lock us in. When Robert Heinlein, in Beyond This Horizon, wrote the famous sentence “The door dilated,” the intention was to inform the reader—in a casual, unobtrusive way—that we were in a future world. The door opens like the dilating iris of an eye, and no one comments on it or wonders at it, because it is not, in this fictional world, remarkable. It’s rather a joke these days—because honestly, what a ridiculously elaborate way of opening a door—but that tiny sentence accomplishes a lot, and does it with panache.

And that’s admirable. I’m not opposed—at all!—to complex writing, but the ability to draw a reader in with an elegant, concise bit of description (three words!) is something we can all envy.

I’d like to hear about any examples of world building that you found particularly effective and inventive and memorable. I’ll start with a few of mine:

In Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany, the novel’s most prominent alien species doesn’t just enjoy food at mealtimes, they also enjoy licking small rocks. Rocks are served with meals, and the natives savor the taste of different minerals. The novel’s human protagonists also take part in rock licking, because it’s polite. Stars in my Pocket is a big, complex novel with scads of world building—but it’s this one detail in particular that remains with me, even decades later. It wasn’t important to the plot at all, but that single, concise detail locked me in. I knew I was in another world.

(This example also highlights another important point: don’t neglect the mundane things of life. Food is primary to all life as we know it, but all-too-many science fiction writers reduce food-of-the-future to cubes of protein-rich gelatin or synthetic versions of chicken curry and sweet-and-sour shrimp. Dull. Unless your world is a grim dystopia where dull food symbolizes the dreariness of life, have some fun. Eating is too sensual and visceral an experience to be wasted on drab victuals.)

Another example of notable and elegant world building: in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly, characters speak English, of course (it’s American television, after all) but they are always dropping in bits of Mandarin. It’s never explained, never even really commented on. Everybody just knows a lot of  Mandarin, particularly swear words. All of which suggests—simply, elegantly—that the political landscape of the Earth has changed a lot. (There are websites out there dedicated to translating the Mandarin bits of Firefly, much of which is hilariously weird and inappropriate, from “Filthy fornicators of livestock!” to “Stupid inbred stack of meat.”)

If I’m making any kind of an argument here (and that’s certainly arguable), it’s that less really can be more when it comes to world building. You don’t need to provide a treasure trove of details, just a few that sing out to the reader. They’ll fill in the rest with their vivid imaginations. And you don’t need to work out everything to be convincing. We live in a world where we frequently experience confusion and uncertainty. If you really think the world is a rational, well-ordered place, I’d suggest that maybe you aren’t paying enough attention. It’s comforting, I suppose, to believe that some kind of higher order underlies the fabric of creation, but—rules of physics and mathematics and biology aside—there isn’t a whole lot of empirical evidence to support that belief. Your world might be more believable if it mimics this uncertainty, if everything doesn’t fit together just so. The universe, as Time Bandits tells us, is a bit of a botch job. And God (god? who?) is, undeniably, inscrutable. Since you are God now, I invite you to follow his (her?) example. Nobody likes a tight-assed, control freak deity. Let your world breath a little.

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book promotion, book reviews

This Way Madness Lies, But So What?

There is probably no more ill-advised pastime for a writer than to engage with his or her negative critics. Reviews are what they are, and any response on your part will only make you seem thin-skinned and defensive. Not everyone is going to love your books, so get over it and let it go.0

Nevertheless, I’m presented here with a rare opportunity. Friend, fellow writer, and notorious gadfly Mimi Speike found fault with my new book, Whisper Blue. Now this, I promise you, is not an attack on Mimi, who I love and admire. In fact, I appreciate and cherish her honesty. Nor will it, I hope, degenerate into a series of mere ripostes and touchy rejoinders. Mimi and I have already exchanged opinions via email and remain the best of pals. Her criticisms are insightful and thought provoking. Do I agree with them? Well, no, because I have my natural arrogance to fall back on, not to mention a fair number of favorable reviews to take comfort in. So why am I focusing on a bad review? Just naturally a contrarian, I guess.  But dissent will nearly always spark a more interesting discussion than agreement. So, what the heck. Let’s rumble!

Mimi: “Your prose style, as usual, is flawless. (I had to include that bit. -AG) I do have some problems with the plot. The uncomplicated style says to me YA, and I do believe Miles’ rather mumbo-jumbo rationale for the odd business would fit nicely into the mouth of a fascinated-with-psychic/not-overly-critical teen.”

A fair point. I wrote back: “If Miles’ explanation for Whisper’s manifestation seems a little addled, well, he’s a little addled, and it seems like exactly the kind of explanation he would come up with. (He needs an explanation, because he’s a rationalist.) It may not make a lick of sense, but it’s at least a self-consistent construction (really, almost more a science fiction explanation than a ghost story one, which fits Miles’ personality.) In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you or I find it believable, just so long as Miles (nearly) does. It’s a bandaid on the gaping wound that has sundered his reality. The fact that it barely works is, well, just as it should be.”

I didn’t add, but will here, that I think Miles’ explanation is actually pretty good, certainly well in line with some of the norms of paranormal fiction. But therein lies one of the bones of incompatibility betwixt Mimi and myself. She really doesn’t care for paranormals, and I obviously do.

Mimi: “I do not find gut-wrenching emotion, that jumps off the page. You tell us that your characters are stunned, upset, all that, but where is the out-and-out frenzy? (On Marieka’s part. We’ve already written Miles off.) Especially with a first-person telling, it would be so easy to show.”

Yes, and I’m afraid there isn’t a lot to say on this point. My natural tendency is to soft-pedal emotion and to minimize introspection, even in first-person. It’s just a personal preference, which Mimi astutely recognized later in her critique, saying: “But that means interior stuff, and I understand that is not your impulse.” And she’s right. It really isn’t. Too often, the examination and explanation of why-my-characters-are-feeling-what-they-feel only clutters up the landscape, making it more difficult for readers to feel what they feel, which is more what I hope will happen. Some people can do the introspection thing very well and to great effect. Me, not so much. I won’t walk away from a poignant moment, but I prefer them to be few and far between.

As far as me telling rather than showing, well, I don’t actually have a problem with telling. It is part of writing. But as far as me telling rather than showing the emotions of my characters, particularly Marieke, I disagree. For the most part, I think I did as little of either as I could reasonably get away with.

Mimi: “Taylor James says, ‘The story is fast paced.’ I would think that fast paced here is not a desirable thing. I say you need to immerse your kooks in a slow-simmer soup, and let them stew in it but good, with plenty of reflection. Instead we get mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage. Everything moves too fast, for my money.”

Again, we are simply at odds here. I love a slow-simmer, and I expect nothing less from Mimi’s own epic cat-o-many-tales, Sly. But…that isn’t Whisper. I wanted something agile enough to slither and scurry up the lattice of plot and emerge with a “what just happened here?” feeling. So fast-paced pleases me. As does “mysteriously matter-of-fact reportage.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Mimi: “I buy that a once alive girl might be called up from the dead, but a totally made-up one? I wish at least that Miles had found a mention of a child who had actually existed, and had created additions to the story that just happened to be very close to the truth. (Wouldn’t that be way stranger? And it would solve the problem of reporters digging into a lie.) A demand, by a side-branch descendant of the clan, to know how he came by a piece of information that had never been disclosed, a connection he is able to verify, may be what sends him over the edge.”

A fascinating angle, and in a conventional ghost story, a wholly valid point. But Whisper isn’t really a ghost story. And…well, I’ll quote from my own email reply: “The book isn’t about voodoo or mental illness or even about the madness of the internet crowd. It isn’t even about Marieke and Miles and Mama Jay. It is about the relationship between fiction and reality. The central metaphor of the book is that a fictional character can become as real as a flesh-and-blood person. This is an emotional truth, of course. Who hasn’t experienced that? In Whisper, the metaphor is made real (that’s what paranormal and fantasy fiction do, they treat the metaphorical as if it were an actual thing.) In Whisper’s case, even the meta-metaphor is made real. It’s a work of fiction about a work of fiction coming to life. That, really, is what I was interested in. Miles’ fiction—particularly Wisteria’s diary—the reports on the web, even Stokes’ stories about James Randi are all stirring this same pot. For that reason, it’s absolutely essential that Whisper be fiction, not a real girl. That would completely undermine the metaphor.”

Of course, that metaphor didn’t work for Mimi, and I have no one but myself to blame for that. Assuming we really need someone to blame, which is arguable.

Okay, one more point. Mimi: “We never get a satisfying resolution, just a hook-up with the professor. Okay, I guess the gris-gris around her neck is the resolution. Marieka has caved. She is a convert to tinfoil-hat beliefs, is now generating her own delusions. It’s either that or a mass-hypnosis situation. A buy-in is the easiest, neatest option.”

And that, I guess, was a swing and a miss on my part. Marieke’s gris-gris never smacked of tin-foil hat conversion to me, partly because I don’t regard voodoo as any more delusional than most of your standard religions, but also because Marieke’s appropriation of one of its trappings doesn’t necessarily make her a believer. In her own private way, she’s trying to deal with what she has seen and experienced. If I were to sort it out (and no, I never did, because it seemed perfectly natural to me) I’d say she wears it out of respect for Whisper, and maybe for Mama Jay as well. But if that didn’t come across to Mimi, then perhaps I could’ve done better. But people who go to my books looking for satisfying resolutions are probably going to be disappointed. Emotionally satisfying? Well, I hope so. But plot-resolution satisfaction? Not always one of my priorities.

And, perhaps, this just wasn’t going to be Mimi’s cup of tea, no matter how well I prepared and presented it. Near the end of her email she apologized for “being anal about making sense” and that, may be the crux of our failure to connect. There are things about Whisper Blue that don’t make perfect sense. That’s not an accident, it’s a choice. Paranormal fiction appeals to those of us who like floating in that shadow realm between the real and the other. We are drawn to those uncanny lands, where the various layers of reality rub up against other, twining about, until they become, maybe, interchangeable.

I can’t say whether I achieved that with Whisper Blue, but if you want to find out for yourself, it is available at Amazon,  Kobo,  Barnes and Noble, other places as well. I think it’s good, but I’m open to discussion.

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