Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Does fiction have to seem real?

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

One of the quotes on my website is from Tom Clancy. He’d answer the title question in the affirmative. He’s probably referring to thrillers in that quote, but most good fiction has to seem real. A few genres—horror and fantasy, for example—are exceptions, but even hard sci-fi and historical romance novels should seem real enough—the more believable, the better. I often see events from the latest tweet from our president to NYC crime scenes (they’ve become eerily similar in some ways) and say, “I couldn’t write anything like that because readers wouldn’t find it believable.” But maybe I’m limiting myself because readers don’t want believable?

Consider my arch-villain Vladimir Kalinin, first introduced in The Midas Bomb (he appears in many books). He’s a bit of a narcissist and psychotic, but I gave him a human side in No Amber Waves of Grain. Mr. Trump has no human side, yet Trump is real and Kalinin isn’t, although he seems more real to me than Trump because the latter seems to live in a fantasy world. When you consider real people like Charles Manson, Kalinin actually seems pretty tame.

Also consider Mary Jo Melendez of Muddlin’ Through. She represents what’s great about immigration in America (unless you’re Native American, you’re an immigrant or descended from immigrants). So do many of my characters. Bill Franklin, a gay man, and Kalidas Metropolis, a lesbian, play important roles in The Midas Bomb and Full Medical, respectively. None of these characters is real, but they also represent groups that many people don’t want to be real and would rather not have in fiction either.

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Person and POV…

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Let me take you back to your language lessons—English or some other language will do—and remind you that “person” tells us who is speaking, or, in the case of literature, who’s writing: I live; you (s) live; he, she, it lives; we live; you (pl) live; and they live. Sometimes the pronouns are understood—Russian and Spanish often do that—and if you’re a minimalist writer (“hard-boiled” for crime stories) you might write, “Went to the convenience store to pick up a burn phone,” when the pronoun is understood (in this case, it’s not–previous context is needed).

Person and point-of-view (POV) are often linked. First person singular, the “I-form” of English, is invariably that person’s POV, for example. Much literature is written in the third person singular though, and that’s where the connection breaks down. The author puts the reader in the POV of a character in that case so s/he can get inside that character’s head, so third person singular doesn’t define a unique POV. It can, but it’s not necessary.  If the author uses multiple POVs, it can be confusing. S/he’s probably not confused, but the reader can be.

The confusion is most egregious when a reader thinks one character X’s POV is being employed yet that character seems to know far too much about what character Y is thinking. If the reader stops and says, “Huh? How could X know that?” the author is in trouble. There are ways to get around this. X might be telepathic (sci-fi) or might be exceptionally skilled at reading body language (Y is nervous—he’s glancing at the door far too often). In other words, the author must supply reasons for X to know what’s going on in Y’s mind.

An author can jump from one POV to another but not too often. S/he should separate those jumps into independent sections or chapters. Jumping from one POV to another at a pace with dialogue jumps isn’t allowed, for example. All dialogue within a section or chapter should be in one character’s POV—that character can only observe or hear what others are saying, except for unusual circumstances like the ones I just mentioned. This is easy to control. The author only has to ask herself, who do I want doing the thinking and listening in this section or chapter?

Many writing gurus say to keep one POV throughout the entire book. That’s OK, but in fiction it’s a wee bit like putting on handcuffs. As a reader, I like more spice in my reading. I want the opportunity to understand what each character is thinking so that I can understand her or his actions. Sure, I can imagine what each character’s motivations might be, but what I imagine might not be what the author intended. By changing POVs, the author can provide the hints I need. Only hints are necessary—that’s good minimalist (or hard-boiled) writing.

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Author v. character…

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

When an author writes her or his novel and opinions are expressed, readers might pause and ask, “Is this the author’s opinion or the character’s?” Here’s the danger: a reader might quote an author and say s/he supports a position when s/he really doesn’t! In today’s politically charged and toxic environment, that might create a PR and marketing nightmare. It could also be a matter of life and death in a country where opinions contrary to the regime aren’t allowed. Or where a religious majority is intent on stomping out heretics. (Sometimes a country can have both, of course.)

An author living in a more enlightened country that considers free speech to be a right can write what s/he wants, the argument being that the reader doesn’t have to read it if it seems disagreeable. (That implies censorship of any kind is questionable, of course.) It’s still a good idea, though, to make sure your opinions expressed in narrative not associated with a character, often written in the omniscient point of view (POV)—sci-fi world building, for example—are wants you want to be associated with. Otherwise, put them in a character’s POV so that character owns them, not you.

That sounds a bit sneaky, I know. And beware: this only works in fiction! There remains a danger even so: the reader might identify you, the author, with one character, especially if that character is using the first person singular. I don’t always agree with Detective Castilblanco, for example, but he’s in first person in the entire “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series”!

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Apocalypse redux…

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Redux = brought back, revived. We’re talking about the apocalypse again. Apocalypse is the event. While a dystopian society can cause it or be its aftermath, post-apocalyptic is reserved for the aftermath. There is a resurgence in these themes now. Everyone knows the reason: what’s happening in the U.S. right now as well as across the world has frightening parallels with 1930’s Germany, Italy, and Spain as well as with the darkest days of the Cold War. There’s nothing religious about this apocalypse.

Most dystopian, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic tales in the past were associated with the two world wars or the Communist threat. Brave New World was dystopian; Ape and Essence was post-apocalyptic. Even The Time Machine was post-apocalyptic. 1984 and Animal Farm were dystopian. Later sci-fi novels like Not This August were post-apocalyptic. Many classics can be found in these subgenres. Many soon-to-be classics like Wool are too. They all are warnings about what could happen. It’s common that interest in books and movies in these subgenres reflect troubled times in the world.

The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the world. As that hand on the Doomsday Clock inches toward midnight, these sci-fi subgenres become more popular. Some readers ignore them, burying their heads in the sand by reading schmaltzy romances and fluffy adventures that avoid most serious themes of any type. Which group is right? Beats me. I just tell stories. If one of them comes out apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, so be it. Almost all my stories have serious themes, though, but not all of them are in the aforementioned subgenres.

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Fake news and misleading stats…

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

Hmm…LinkedIn? Now that Microsoft owns them, you have to wonder what they’re using that website for beyond ads. They’re certainly discouraging discussion groups, my favorite feature, but for what reason? Maybe they realize they can’t compete with Google or Facebook—the former makes a major portion of its profit from ads, although Google+ is weak compared to both in discussions, and the latter is trying to catch up with the ads but lights up with discussions.

They all have fake news. Should we also call misleading stats that appear on all of these fake news? Stats are rarely “clean.” First, authors of articles using them often leave out the hypotheses and description of how the dataset was collected and processed. Second, they often jump to conclusions based on biased sampling techniques. Third, the author of the article can choose, and often does, only those stats that support her or his opinion. It’s all a bit like the Bible: you can find stuff there that will support any position if you look for it.

Yep, many articles quoting stats are fake news if not downright lies. Here’s a recent example that occurred on LinkedIn. The author of a post was probably an innocent victim, but she provided a link to an article about a Nielsen report that gives stats showing ebooks are in decline. Do you follow links like this? It can be dangerous because the link might allow a virus or other malware to invade your laptop or smart phone. Your best bet is to go to the original site if it looks OK and read the article. That said, I read the entire Nielsen report.

But more on Microsoft’s LinkedIn for a moment. I’ve never found much use for it. I have a lot of connections. A lot of them are good people who seem to think I’m someone useful to connect with. Me, the introverted fiction writer? The shy fellow who will never do blog radio and is uncomfortable at any event where I have to appear in person and participate in one-on-one conversations? (I taught large lecture classes at one time, but there is a certain anonymity in that situation that made them easier for me. First days were scary in any class, though—and I was the professor!)

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The missing romance?

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Valentine’s Day is here. For the last month I’ve been receiving emails from 1-800-FLOWERS, book offers for romance and erotica books, restaurants with special prix fixe menus for a romantic dinner, and so forth. Romance sells in the commercial world—or businesses think it does, at least. I continuously reevaluate my writing career, so maybe it’s time to ask myself, am I doing a disservice to readers? Should I include more romance?

I’ll have to admit that I’ve never used the genre label romance or erotica for any of my stories and never used those labels as keywords either (genres are just keywords, of course). Such labels should help the reader decide what’s emphasized in a story, so I’d be misleading readers by saying a story is a romance. My stories are about human beings, though, so romance is included—it’s a part of being human, either by participating in it, lacking it, or choosing to avoid it. In the wide spectrum of human behavior, romance plays an important role. I include it; I just don’t emphasize it. That’s a choice I’ve made. I won’t apologize for it.

One reviewer of Teeter-Totter between Lust and Murder (#3 in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series”) complained that the title was deceiving—he was looking for more lust! Sexual lust is related to romance, of course, and Detective Chen felt both for her senator-lover in that story. “Sex games” was the SWAT team leader’s description of the murder scene where they found her with the senator’s body. What happens from thereon doesn’t have much lust or romance, so the reviewer was correct in a sense, but Chen’s lack of romance in her life and her search for it is still about romance—and that was a theme.

I generally put romance into my stories only if it fits—I’ve never sat down at my laptop saying, “I’m going to write a romantic tale today.” I don’t write romances, and I rarely read a story if that’s all it’s about. It’s not that I don’t think romance is important to human beings; it is. I’m just more interested in the rest of the plot and how it leads to romance…or destroys it. Somehow we’ve evolved to be the extreme sexual activists of the animal world. We’ve even tried to sanctify that sexuality to move beyond the obvious evidence that human beings are a randy bunch. We also sanitize it by calling it romance.

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Pride in our writing…

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

It’s often interesting to do some soul-searching. Why do we write? We all take pride in what we write. Or just call it satisfaction after spinning a good yarn. (I’m obviously talking about fiction, but you can extrapolate to your circumstances.) Some people, even readers, might think that our pride or satisfaction makes us narcissists. Admittedly some writers carry that pride a wee bit too far.

I can see it in some blurbs or descriptions of books. Here’s a recent one: “Compelling! Provacative! Informative!” There are worse: “Sure to be a bestseller!” Or “Author Hits a Home Run!” The rest of the blurb might actually provide some information, and maybe they were written by PR personnel with an acute case of superlativitis, but if they were written by an author, narcissism might be indicated.

I’ve seen it in book fairs. Authors full of themselves extolling the virtues of their writing. Authors reading from their magnum opus in a boring monotone, offering a cure for insomnia instead of perceptions about their book, including its important themes. Worst case: authors reading for their own audiobooks! Next worse case: authors in love with the pronouns I, me, and mine in book trailers (at least Patterson seems to avoid that). I’ve also seen great humility. Being humble is a virtue. Nowadays there are many good books and good writers. I feel lucky some reader chooses to read one of mine.

Some creative people want to put themselves on a pedestal so that other mere mortals can worship them and bask in the light of their self-defined genius. Of course, non-creative people do that too (we even have a president who’s a narcissist—if that were his only sin!). It’s all about ego. While some feeling of self-worth is better than depression and suicidal tendencies, a balance must be struck. Relating to other people is a skill many of us lack now (including the U.S. president), but huge ego trips don’t help.

If you’re writing for self-aggrandizement, don’t. In fact, if you’re writing for any other reason than love of writing, your motivation is ill-conceived. Odds are you won’t have a bestseller, but you’ll maybe have a few readers who are fans. Odds are you won’t hit a home run in Yankee Stadium with your book either, but you might with your after-work softball team. (I’m guessing it has to be a print version if you swat at the ball with a book—hey, baseball season is almost upon us!)

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Zero-content fiction…

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Some readers think I’m too “political” in my fiction. This often needs a translation. What many of them mean is that I treat uncomfortable themes. Whether mystery, thriller, sci-fi, or some combination, there’s usually one or two themes, from spousal abuse to sexual perversion (child porn, etc), from corporate excesses to the ravages produced by inadequate medical coverage. I’ll go out on a limb here and state this is why subgenres like cozy mysteries, bodice rippers, historical fiction, and fantasy are so popular. Readers can read about good v. evil without really confronting the evil in their everyday lives while extolling cardboard Dudley Dorights (hmm, that really dates me) who surpass all odds and save the day.

In other words, some readers want zero-content fiction—murders committed with no rhyme or reason by murderers who are simply bad, neo-Victorian visions of sexual relationships, twisted and romantic versions of past history, and princes and princesses jousting with their enemies with swords or blasters. A good time is had by all, as they say. Some authors, realizing this is the market they’re faced with, pamper and addict such readers to this fluff.

I’m not saying there isn’t strife in the fluff. I’m saying that the reader can distance herself from it because it seems far from her everyday reality. (I’m not implying that these readers are necessarily female, by the way. There’s no gender-neutral version of herself and himself in English, so I use the former to avoid repetition.)

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Biographies, histories, and memoirs…

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

All good ones avoid the spoiler-alert phenomenon when the reader already knows the real-world facts about what went on. That they are non-fiction doesn’t matter—they still have to be an interesting story to maintain my attention. Pages and pages of droll facts cause me to skip just as much as excess world-building in a sci-fi novel or excess narrative in a mystery (those are often the same thing). And I really don’t want a freak show like famous person X having a two-headed cousin who married an orangutan.

As a fiction writer, you might think I just read fiction in the genres I write—mystery, thriller, and sci-fi, and their combinations. Or, you might think I just read any genere fiction. You’d be wrong. For example, because I once was a scientist, I can read technical books—I still peek inside them occasionally. They’re often filled with history too. I once owned a three-volume work on spread spectrum techniques (advanced communications theory). As a reference, I’d skip around in it—funny how technical writers think they’re organized when they’re not. But I thoroughly enjoyed the introductory part that considered the history where I was reminded that the idea first appeared in a Theodore Sturgeon sci-fi short story (yes, the same guy who coined Sturgeon’s Law) and that Hedy Lamarr, the actress, did research on it during the war.

OK, I don’t read technical books for fun per se, and never did, although I’m quick to say some are more fun than others. But I’ll read a good biography, history, and memoir for fun…and maybe never finish it if it isn’t entertaining in some way. A good biography gets into a person’s mind and ferrets out the reasons for her or his actions. That’s especially true of an autobiography. I avoid Hollywood and other celebs’ like a plague, though. Most don’t say anything of interest compared to Churchill and Eisenhower (two bios I read last year) or propose anything that will better people’s lives (like Bernie Sander’s Our Revolution). Scientists are particularly bad at autobiographies—your best bet is to read their biographies (I just finished one about Fermi).

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Book reading and literacy…

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

There are plenty of stats out there that show readership—do I dare say literacy?—is down. Many people don’t read a book after high school. Many don’t read one after college. While online material keeps increasing, Facebook posts and Twitter tweets are now read more than blog posts, and the latter, like this one, can’t be called literature by any stretch and Facebook and Twitter might as well be mutterings from prehistoric shamans. What’s going on?

As might be expected, I tend to communicate, especially online, with literate people. OK, maybe they suck at spelling, or they allow auto-correct to change things to something they never intended, but they can put thoughts together intelligently on the printed page and make sense of mine. And we tend to talk about books a lot—reading, writing, reviewing, marketing, whatever. All this activity tends to bias my perspective, so I had to base the opinions in that first paragraph on real stats (that happens with a lot of my posts, by the way, although many of them are op-ed and therefore my opinions). Those stats confirm that we’re becoming a nation of non-readers no matter the anecdotal experiences people tell me about.

Computer games, streaming video, mind-numbing jobs, a flawed educational system that makes students hate reading, music downloads, sporting events, liquor and drugs—you can probably add to this list other distractions that can all be summarized by saying that literacy is attacked on many fronts. Moreover, the substitutes are often passive pastimes, not active and certainly not creative. Even the reading genres have become trivialized—mysteries have become cozies, romantic adventures have become plotless bodice rippers, sci-fi has become fantastic and unscientific space opera, and serious historical and political tomes have become celeb books written by ghostwriters.

The number of books and authors is increasing in the digital age, but is quality decreasing? I don’t think so, but, because there are fewer readers, even good books and authors go unread. There has always been chaff that an erstwhile reader had to separate from the good wheat, of course. Before it was just created by traditional publishing; now it’s also created by indie authors and indie publishers. But does it matter? If there are so few real readers, people who read more than N books per year (you pick N) and read quality material, literacy in America and the rest of the world will suffer. That seems to be the path we’re going down.

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