Category Archives: writers

The Writer’s Role

So, a while back I saw a cartoon on Facebook that really stuck with me.  It’s been a while, so I may have some of the details wrong, but I remember the gist of it.  The title was, ‘the world’s first science fiction stories.’  One of them showed a caveman hitting a rock against another rock, while some other caveman yelled at him:  ‘Thag!  You Crazy!  You destroy us all!’  In the next panel we saw the world splitting in half with a mighty ‘crack’ as Thag did indeed destroy us all.  The next cartoon showed a similar scenario, with one caveman trying to start a fire, while another stood behind him shouting.  ‘Grog gone mad!  He kill us all!’  And in the following panel, well, you guessed it, the world was on fire.

My first reaction was to chuckle because, well, that’s pretty damned funny.  But after that I couldn’t help but think about what was being said.

Science fiction, in this scenario, was playing the role of the fear monger.  It shied away from any form of progress, or really, any kind of change at all.  And it was an accurate depiction of many science fiction stories.  Not all, obviously.  Star Trek’s attitude towards technology tends towards optimism, and according to some television shows, technology is the solution to most of lives problems.

But there are definitely stories that fall into the framework described in the cartoons.  One of the more obvious ones being ‘Jurassic Park.’  An eccentric billionaire figures out how to clone dinosaurs.  He is warned of the dangers, but does it anyway, and the world falls apart because of it.  Or at least, an island falls apart because of it.

So, is there a divide in science fiction?  Fear mongering on one side, and hopeful idealism on the other?

I don’t think that’s the case.  Partly because I enjoy the occasional ‘destroyed by their own hubris,’ story, but also because these stories don’t make we want to hide my head in the sand.  At least, not forever.

I watched Terminator, and I still want us to start building AIs.  I read ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,’ and I still want us to build androids. I read Jurassic Park, and I still want someone to start bringing back extinct species (in fact, I’d very much like to bring back the Dodo bird just to start a fast food franchise).

More than once, I’ve encountered people who treat science fiction as though it were prophetic.  Arguments against the creation of artificial intelligence that amount to: ‘didn’t you see terminator?  Don’t you know what will happen?’

But that isn’t the message that I take from those stories.  To me they exist as reminders that we’re responsible for what happens now.  Throughout much of human existence, when bad things happened, they were external forces which happened to us.  Attacks by wild animals, natural disasters, what have you.  But we have, as a species, reached a sort of puberty, and much of what lies ahead of us is going to be the result of the choices that we make.

In fairness, that’s reading quite a bit into what is, on a very real level, ‘just a story.’  But I think that it is a more valid message than, ‘fear change.’

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What makes me a writer

There are certain words in the English language whose meanings are set in stone.  Words that have little to no ambiguity, in most situations.  Words like ‘lungs,’ or ‘North,’ or ‘diabetes.’  These words have specific meanings that are not really open for debate.

Other words are a bit more malleable.

For example, ‘writer.’  I remember going to a writing conference and hearing someone say, ‘if you write, then you are a writer.’  In the strictest sense of the word, I suppose that’s true, but I think that it diminishes the relationship between many writers and their work.

I don’t have the right to determine who is or isn’t a writer, obviously, but I do feel comfortable sharing why it is that I call myself a writer.

And it certainly has nothing to do with sales.  I’ve got three or four books out in the world, under various names, and in an average month, I sell right about at enough to get myself a coffee.  One coffee.  Thankfully I don’t drink coffee, so I get to use the money for other things.  If finances were all that was involved, I’d have to call myself a farmer, since that’s where the majority of my income comes from.

The amount of time that I invest in my activities might have something to do with it.  I do make a point of writing every day… most every day.  Five out of seven?  Anyhow, the point is, I put in time.  But even when I’m working a full time job and can’t put in nearly as much time, I still consider myself a writer.

I figured out what made me think of myself as a writer one day after depositing a check from work.  The check wasn’t huge, I’ve never had a job that paid a lot, but it was for a couple hundred bucks.  Enough to cover rent and a couple of meals.  I deposited the money, I went home, I checked online to see if anything had happened with anything I’d published and… something had.

My heart jumped, my breath caught, and I read a five star review on goodreads.

It was not my first five star review, but it was one of the first ones I’d received from somebody I didn’t know.  I don’t think they wrote a review of the book, but they gave me five stars.  Somebody liked what I’d written.

The book that I’d sold them made me all of a buck sixty.  Unless they bought an electronic copy, in which case it was closer to a buck.  According to their goodreads profile, more than half of their reviews were five stars.  There was no value to what they’d given me, but I was exhilarated! More than exhilarated, I was ecstatic!  I had connected to a reader.  I had created something, they had picked it up, and they had ingested a little piece of my mind.  And they enjoyed it.

I rode that high all day long.

The money for work would let me live and keep a roof over my head, but my writing made me feel whole.

I believe that everybody has something in their life that keeps them sane.  We spend most of our time dealing with things that we must, but we all need something that anchors us and helps us define who we are.  Whether it’s religion, family, art, work, study, some activity.

For me, it’s writing.  I love it.  There are parts of being a writer that are difficult and frustrating.  There are times when the words don’t come, and when everything I write seems trite or absurd.  There are bad days, of course, but writing is more than just a thing I do, it’s a part of who I am.

That’s what I mean when I say that I’m a writer.

Thanks for sharing, now please stop

The other day an older relative of mine came up to me and told me that he had an idea for a book.

I smiled politely, listened to the idea, and tried to give him the impression that I appreciated the idea and would certainly keep it in mind for the future.

I’ve already forgotten the idea.

I’m sure that it happens in all of the arts, people coming up and telling you what you should do next, but I honestly think that it’s worse for the storytellers.  Whether you write books, plays, movies, commercials… whatever it is that you do, everybody, an I mean everybody, has at least one idea for that medium that they think is pure gold.

Here’s the thing people: your idea might very well be brilliant!  It might be the greatest story idea that anybody has ever come up with in the history of mankind.  It doesn’t matter.  I don’t want to write your story for you.  In a few select cases, for very close friends or people in the industry, I might be willing to try writing a story with you, but by god, I’m not going to make that journey on my own.

Why?

Because the idea is the easy part!

Yes, you heard me right, the idea is the easy part.  I know you’re skeptical.  You’ve read books based on stupid ideas, you’ve watched movies where the plot is so thin it would fall apart if you blew your nose on it.  There are plenty of terrible ideas that somehow come into the light of day.  Given.

But it’s still the easiest part of the process.

I’ve got plenty of ideas.  I could spend the rest of my life writing the books that are currently sitting in my mental queue.  Okay, maybe not the rest of my life, but well over a decade, trust me on this.

The hard part of telling a story isn’t the idea, it’s bringing the idea to life.  The reason writers go to conferences and read books and join critique groups and hire editors has nothing to do with fixing our ideas or making them better: It’s all about getting what’s in our head onto the page in such a way that somebody else can appreciate it!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that my relative knows that I’m a writer and wants to talk to me about the things that I’m interested in.  I’m happy that when he thinks about books and stories he thinks about me and wants to be included in that part of my life.

But I do rather wish that every time we talked he wasn’t trying to put a new project on my plate.