Tag Archives: books

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.’

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.

Genres

The first time I saw a ‘paranormal romance’ section in a bookstore, I remember thinking, ‘That’s not right.  That isn’t a genre!’

To be clear, this was not a judgement against paranormal romance, although I do take issue with paranormal romance.  But that wasn’t what this was about.  This was about my perception of what it meant for something to be a ‘genre.’

It was also what got me to actually stop and reevaluate my perceptions on genre.

I’ve spent oodles and oodles of time in bookstores and libraries, and for most of my childhood it didn’t even occur to me to wonder why the books were divided up the way they were.  I knew where the ‘good’ stuff was.  YA section had a lot of different stuff to try, and when I wanted a more intense read, I went to the science fiction section.

The ‘proper’ sections, of course, were sf/f, mystery, thriller, romance, horror, humor, western, historical… what am I missing?  I mean, sure, there’s the nonfiction section, but I never really paid attention to that, at least, not to browse.  If I headed over to nonfiction it was for something specific, and I was in and out as fast as I could go.

But genres… if you really think about them, they don’t make much sense.  I mean, horror and humor and romance make sense together, and science fiction and western and historical make sense… although, technically, shouldn’t western be a category of historical?

It’s perfectly possible for a novel to be both science fiction and romance, or horror.  Technically it could be a science fiction horror romance, although in those cases it’s usually either more of a horror with elements of romance, or more of a romance with elements of horror.  But the point is, some genres seem to describe the tone of the book, while others describe the setting.  Why?  Why not just go with one division or another.

It wasn’t until I read my fifth or six paranormal romance, and got pissed off by it, that the truth hit me.

So, circling back to my earlier comment about having an issue with paranormal romance, I would like to say, for the record, that the first time I read a paranormal romance I enjoyed it immensely.  I think it was a the first Sookie Stackhouse novel.  The second time I read one, I thought it was pretty damned good.  I honestly have no idea what the second one was.  Third book, fine.  By the fourth book I was starting to sense a pattern.  Hey, call me slow if you must, but please keep in mind that, at the time, I didn’t think of these as ‘paranormal romance,’ I was reading fantasy novels.  A whole bunch of fantasy novels.  And i was reading them interspersed with fantasy novels that were distinctly not paranormal romance.  So I wasn’t reading and thinking, ‘hmm, this reminds me of those other paranormal romance, doesn’t it?’ I was reading it and thinking, ‘you know, there’s a lot here that’s in that other book I read… which one was that?’

Eventually, though, it clicked.  The pattern became obvious.  There is a woman who has suffered and had a hard time making meaningful connections in the ‘normal’ world.  Somehow she finds herself dealing with the supernatural world.  it is large and frightening with big beautiful men in it and they all tell her that she is special, unique, important.  And they’re right.  Now she has to choose between this man who is dangerous and powerful and lusty, and this man who is dangerous and powerful and lusty.

Every once in a while they’d throw a curveball.  Maybe she’d have to choose between three men.  Maybe she’d have to choose between a man and a woman.  Maybe she would have these supernatural powers.  Maybe she was just ‘special.’

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.  Men have their own version of it.  It’s the harry potter/starwars/matrix story.  You have an orphan who desperately wishes to lead a life less ordinary.  One day he finds out that he is in fact special.  His parents were not just anybody, they were part of the great war between good and evil, and he has a destiny to fulfill. First he must study under this great teacher.  Then he must battle his own fears and doubts, finally he must confront the person who killed his parents. (also, for the record, I know that neither paranormal romance nor the starwars/potter/matrix stuff is JUST for men or JUST for women, but it does seem that one is more directed at men and the other more directed at women)

I get it.  These things repeat themselves for a reason, and the reason is that they pull at the heart strings.  That’s fine.  But I’m glad that I can usually identify which books are paranormal romance now, because I can avoid rereading the story that I’ve read fifteen times already, and find a book that’s more my speed.

And that, I guess, is what genre is all about.  It isn’t meant to be a perfect divider making it obvious for the bookseller which book should go where, it’s meant as a tool for the reader, to make it easier to find their next book, something that is more or less in the same vein as that last thing that they read and loved.

Which is kind of why I think that we need to reexamine genres again.  the tools provided by the internet age have given us the ability to repaint our lines, and I think it’s nearly time.

Okay, sorry, now I’m just rambling.  I’m tired.  it’s late…. just thinking out loud.  Quietly.

That perfect twist

So, I’m watching this show called ‘Mr. Robot,’ and I’m rather enjoying it so far.  They’re doing some interesting things with the characters and the story arc… anyhow, about halfway through episode two I get this feeling in my head that they’re pulling a fight club on me.  I think that the main character of the show, who has mental problems and is on drugs half the time, is also at least one other character, the guy Christian Slater is playing.  He might be even more.  It popped into my head about halfway through episode two, so I kind of need to re-watch up to this point to see if there are any more indicators.  The biggest thing that makes me think that, however, is the style of the show.  There’s this helpless rage at the corporate machine, a sort of mind bending narration combined with self doubt.  The character is reaching out, trying to find something, trying to change who he is, or how the world work.  It reminds me so much of fight club that I can’t help but wonder.

Anyhow, that got me thinking about movie twists.  And whenever I think about twists in stories, I inevitably think of the twilight zone.  Not the recent reboot, but the original, with Rod Serling.  I used to love watching twilight zone marathons.  The thing was, once you’d seen a couple, you could pretty much guess the twists on the rest of them.  Well, not always, some were too random to really be guessed at.  The box of damaged toys being donated to charity?  Really?  That’s just a couple of writers getting drunk on the weekend going ‘what haven’t we done yet?  come on, there’s gotta be something.’

The thing is, the best twists, the most excellent, most interesting ones, aren’t the ones that come out of left field, they’re the ones that you should have seen coming but didn’t.  My favorite movies and television shows (twist-wise) are the ones where when you watch it the second time, it seems so obvious.

But there’s a delicate balance in there, I think.  It’s a dance between the writer and the reader, or viewer, or whatever.  Making a story where the ending is too obvious isn’t any fun, but you have to give enough clues that your audience can play the game, which means that some of them will see it coming.  A good writer of epic stories will set up a number of red herrings, each of which is possible, so that the conclusion they’re heading for is possible, but only one of several paths they can go down.  It keeps people guessing.

I think it’s a little harder in movies and television shows.  In books you have infinite time and space to work with… well, not infinite, but a lot.  In books and movies, every second needs to accomplish something.  Everything you do needs to have meaning.

My favorite twists to write are not the twist endings.  I mean, I like those from time to time, especially when I’m working on a short story, a little change of pace, a sudden shift in perspective, something that changes the meaning of everything that came before, it’s cool.  But in long stories, in a series, the things that interest me are less about the way things end and more about the way they began.  Sometimes the biggest twist is not where we’re going, but how we got here to start with.

And the some of the most satisfying twists are the ones that you make the reader wait for.  I’m reading the Dresden files a lot these days, and one of the things I’ve come to admire about Butcher’s work is how patient he is at doling out the payoffs.  He had his main character suffering debilitating headaches for several books before finally we discovered why.  And I’m convinced that Dresden will, at some point, journey through time… that he will be the one who fixed the problem with ‘little chicago’ in his basement all those years ago, that he is the person who he hears shouting ‘fuego’ in the battle at chichan itza… that he has had a hand in guiding his own life. All these things which have been set up over years and years, both in the story and out of it.  That’s what I’d like to pull off with some of my own writing.  I have some things set up for that with the Corpse-Eater Saga, but I’m not sure I”m as adept at that as I’d like to be.