Wednesday, December 28, 2005

On Being a Perfect Stranger

A recent article by Jimmy Akin about serious theological errors in Bram Stoker's Dracula made me think about the responsibilities the writer of fiction has when dealing with faith communities not one's own. Obviously, we do not want to deliberately slander or malign someone else's faith by repeating things we know to be false.

However, it is not enough to merely avoid deliberate slander. As Jimmy Akin demonstrates so ably, it is possible for a well-meaning writer who knows a little about another religion's practices and beliefs, but doesn't really understand them or the theology that underlies them, to produce scenes that are profoundly offensive to members of that faith. It is a perfect example of the old adage "a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing."

How then can we as writers avoid such gaffes? Obviously extensive, careful research is essential -- but because we are not members of the faith community in question, we may well lack the knowledge necessary to distinguish authoritative sources from those that are perpetuating misconceptions or outright falsehoods. Even when working with authoritative sources, we may miss nuances, or get the sense of a term wrong when trying to understand it from context -- and it can easily come back to bite us in a story.

Often it comes down to being able to ask someone who has first-hand knowledge about the faith in question. Even then, one often may not know what questions to ask, since certain kinds of misunderstandings are often invisible because they deal with things assumed to be universal, when they are in fact peculiar to one's own religious background. If one's expert is willing, having them actually vet the entire manuscript with an eye to such blunders might be the best solution, although this is often more easily obtained with a short story than a novel.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Congratulations, Your Excellency, You've Been Redshirted

For those who aren't familiar with the science fiction community, "redshirting" is the practice of giving the names of friends or associates to minor characters who are subsequently killed, often in absurd or memorable ways. Sometimes big-name writers will actually auction off the opportunity to have one's name mentioned in this fashion, and donate the proceeds to charity. The term comes from the original Star Trek series, in which the security personnel wore distinctive red shirts, and one could often recognize at first appearance the character who is going to be killed off solely to demonstrate to the viewer that This Is A Very Deadly Place.

I'm doing some planning for another of the stories of Eigun Eiderveyen, which is taking place at a meeting of Catholic bishops. There's an assassin among them, and after a series of murders of people of lesser rank, at least one bishop will be picked off before the assassin is identified and caught. Suddenly I realized that I had a perfect opportunity to redshirt the notorious Marcel Lefebvre, Rad-Trad extraordinaire. And since he can easily be considered a schismatic, the method of murder quickly became gruesomely obvious.

Now I just need time to actually write it.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Who Can It Be Now?

I'd gone back to Cloak and Shadow, hoping to get some work done on it, and I'm becoming steadily aware that there's someone missing in it. I roughly know the sort of person I'm missing, but I still don't really have a sense of who this is yet.

And for me, it's very tricky to consciously think in terms of "OK, I need a character with these traits for this slot," because there's a constant danger that in doing so, I can end up killing the story. If the story becomes a made thing, instead of living in my mind, it just shrivels up and dies. It no longer matters, because it's not about people I care about any more, but just little wooden puppets to be moved from plot point to plot point. So what.

This issue has been a major sore point with several workshops I've been in. They couldn't understand why I couldn't look at a story in terms of structural elements like a machine that could be taken apart and reassembled at will, and would actually get angry with me and accuse me of willful unprofessionalism when I tried to explain that trying to do so kills stories for me, and that I had to protect my stories from being destroyed by this whole slot-based, mechanical plotting system they were trying to impose upon me.

For me, there has to be a world and people that exist for themselves, and only then can I tell stories about them. If I try to reduce them to just a collection of sets and hired actors playing roles, the story dies. I might be able to trudge through cranking out a story as an assignment, but it would be a hateful chore, and would probably end up looking like I did it as an assignment rather than something from the heart.

Monday, December 12, 2005

I'm Still Here

No, I haven't disappeared from the face of the earth,
nor have I given up on writing. It's just that I have
so many things to deal with that I simply haven't had
any spare time to speak of.

We've had another spate of thieves over Thanksgiving
weekend. This time they broke into our house, which
inflicted further mental strain.

And of course there's the constant drain of article
assignments, book shipping and being expected to be an
unpaid maid around this house, but keep it clean to
professional maid standards, for no pay.

Like I have time just lying around in piles waiting
for me to pick it up.

So writing is bits and slivers, a sentence here and a
sentence there while standing in various lines waiting
to do things. Maybe even a whole page into the Palm
Pilot while I'm at the laundromat or some other place
that keeps me for any length of time.

I just wish I could start having real, unbroken
writing time again. I've got more ideas than I ever
had, but less time to write.

At this rate I'm never going to be able to get
anything published, and I'll be writing work-for-hire
nonfiction for the rest of my life.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

So Many Ideas, So Little Time

Yes, I've got still more ideas. Things are
interconnecting and interesting backstory from one
character's earlier life is starting to look like
parts of another character's novel. It would be
interesting to see the first character from the
perspective of the second, and especially when he was
so much younger.

But I quite honestly don't know when I'm ever going to
get them written. I've got article assignments
stacking up one after another, and I somehow need to
do still more cleaning if I'm going to have any hope
of getting this house to sell. You simply can't write
a novel on the basis of a sentence here and a sentence
there, scribbled during the bits and slivers of time
found standing in line waiting for things to happen.
And as long as I'm having to write fiction on-spec, I
pretty much have to let everything else cut in front
of fiction writing time, no matter how many ideas are
burning in my head.

And with my luck, once time does finally loosen up,
the stories have gone cold in my mind and are no
longer so eager to be written, so I'm stuck sitting at
the keyboard remembering the white fire that's now

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Of Holding Back and Letting Out

One of the great frustrations of writing is that, once you finally get time to write, you may discover that the words simply won't come. All those wonderful stories that had to be held back while other
obligations were discharged now seem jammed up there, unwilling or unable to come forth. So you sit and struggle while precious minutes and hours go by, all too aware that the writing time will end all too soon and that you'll have yet another Obligation come plopping down to take away all the time that might otherwise go to writing.

Or worse, you have so many stories and novels lined up that you literally can't settle on any one of them. Your mind is pulled a dozen ways at once by all the different stories crying out, "Write me!" "No, write me!" "Don't forget about MEEEE!" And nothing gets accomplished, and before you know
what's happened, the precious respite is over and it's time to buckle down to Duty once again. But the mind that was so briefly released doesn't want to go back to drudgerous work, and refuses to concentrate. So of course work becomes an even more painful and soul-draining process, and you know that next time around it will be even more difficult to let go and start writing.

Friday, November 04, 2005

On Beginnings

As I'm working on the various novels of Jan-Pawel
Trzetrzelewski and Eigun Eiderveyen, I'm wondering if
some of them are starting in the right place. For
some, it's obvious where to begin. For instance, the
story of the rescue of the prelate whose name I still
haven't settled on should begin with the torturer
telling him that either he will break and deny his
faith, or they will grind his bones into powder. With
that threat established, I can move to his superiors
setting up the necessary circumstances for Eigun to
effect his rescue. And the first Jan-Pawel story,
working title In the Presence of Mine Enemies, starts
with a priest being set upon and beaten by thugs.
Jan-Pawel is then called upon to fill in for the
priest, which puts him in contact with other key
players and gets the storyline moving.

But with others, I'm not so confident. For instance, I
started Plausible Deniability with a scene of
Jan-Pawel reporting to receive his new assignment. I
also have a similar scene at the beginning of Cloak
and Shadow
. Now, looking back at them, I find that
both of them seem rather weak, not to mention
repetitive. On the other hand, I can't yet think of
any good action bit to put at the front, that doesn't
give a false impression of just what the story is

On the other hand, sometimes it's best to just forge
ahead and write the whole novel, and hope that
completing it will give the necessary perspective on
the overall shape of the novel to perform the
necessary front-end alignment. That was certainly the
case with The Steel Breeds True. The scene with
General Semyonov in the Lubyanka was one of the last
that I wrote, as I finally saw how to present the
story so that it would be immediately clear what was
at stake.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Name Game

I've got a character giving me fits. His name is
either Silan or Silor, and I can't figure out which
sounds right.

And he's a major figure in that new novel that just
cropped up, so I have to figure out what his name is.
I really don't want to get a huge way into it and then
have to laboriously go back through and change every
single instance of his name.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Breeding Like Rabbits

What is it with story ideas? Right while I really
don't have enough time to write the stories I already
have, along come two more.

One's another story of the adventures of Eigun
Eiderveyen, and came from a minor character who was to
appear briefly in a couple of scenes in the novel
right before Plausible Deniability. Suddenly I started
seeing a bunch more of this character's background,
why he is so crippled when we meet him there, and who
did it to him. And that raised the question of just
how he got out from those people's clutches, and I
knew Eigun was involved in it, since Jan-Pawel had his
own fish to fry at that time.

The other is set further back in the timeline, and
could be left as purely backstory at the present. But
it does have a lot of interesting potential in it, and
I'd really like to write it someday.

I've got a series as big as David Weber's Honor
Harrington universe here, and I don't have the first
novel written, let alone sold. And to top it all off,
I hardly have time to do any writing on any of them,
between the demands of my non-fiction contracts and
shipping books for our online bookselling business.
Which makes the constant proliferation of ideas all
the more frustrating.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Thoughts on Thieves and Social Costs

This month has not been a very productive one for me.
Not only have I lost a lot of writing time to two
conventions and major non-fiction writing projects,
but I have also had to deal with a thief who broke
into my car and tried to steal it. Not only did I have
to give up the time necessary to have what they broke
repaired, and deal with the cops, but I've had trouble
concentrating and thinking straight, which means a
major slow-down in everything I do.

It's certainly given me plenty of experience in just
how crime affects its victims, even if the victim
never actually encounters the perpetrator. We tend to
focus on violent crimes like rape, murder and armed
robbery, since they are so frightening and immediate.
But the loss of security which results from a break-in
like this are very real, and painful.

I know this is going to be coming out in my stories
soon. At the moment I don't know exactly how, because
I'm still processing the experience. I just know that
there will be effects in my writing.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Like I Need Another Story Right Now

So I'm neck-deep in a contracted 10,000-word non-fiction project, and what should I get but a cool new idea for a novel. Like I need one more thing to distract me when I'm trudging through a project that is Duty, Duty, Duty the whole way through.

This one is sort of parallel with Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski's sequence, dealing with his colleague Eigun Eiderveyen. I'd originally visualized Eigun as a relatively minor figure, a personal connection who would help him get around an immediate supervisor who was stonewalling him out of spite. But I soon had a feeling that there was more to Eigun that this simple, defined role.

And now I know at least some of his backstory, and the cool adventures he had while still a roving diplomat without portfolio, throwing sand in the gears of the bad guys' machinations. And of course I have absolutely no time to write it.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

For Want Of A Title

Giving my stories a proper title is often the most frustrating part of writing. Often my stories go through most of the writing process with nothing but a descriptor like "Nadine's Story" or "Amanda's Story." But while such a descriptor is good enough for tracking a work in progress, it simply won't do for anything that purports to be the finished product.

Ideally, a title should evoke the story without giving it away. At the same time, one should avoid an overused title, since it has effectively lost its power to touch the reader, simply because it already has too many associations.

And that's what I'm facing with the entry-point novel to the Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski sequence. Originally I was going to title it In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which simultaneously gives the sense of the way in which Jan-Pawel is surrounded by enemies, both obvious and not, while at the same time, being a quotation from the Bible, helps give notice that he is a cleric. However, not only has a friend of mine used that title for an unpublished work of hers, but the noted alternate-history novelist Harry Turtledove has used that same title for his work of hidden Jews living in the cracks of a world taken over by the Nazis.

So while I may keep it as a working title, I really need to find something else as a final title.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Where to Begin

Now that I've finally found the best entry point for the Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski sequence, I'm struggling with how to begin the first novel. I need to be able to give the reader a number of important facts about the world very quickly, particularly to make clear that this is a fantasy world and not a mundane novel, at the same time make the reader care about Jan-Pawel and his situation.

At the present I'm not entirely happy with my starting point, but I'm concerned that if I start a little later, when his boss actually confronts him about "wasting" time in recreation, it will require too much backfill and be confusing.

So I'm still thinking and pondering what I want to do with it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

There's a Hole in My Story...

While copying some more notes that got soaked in the
recent blunder with the window, I discovered that one
novel has a major logic hole that I've got to plug --
particularly since it happens at the very beginning,
and everything follows from it.

The premise is that the mad king has his eldest son
executed on trumped-up charges of conspiracy to seize
the throne. However, if he's claiming a conspiracy,
why does he not also wipe out his son's staff, who
would presumably be considered co-conspirators?

Particularly given that one of these staffers proves
to be instrumental in avenging the murdered prince,
the oversight must be explained. It can't be merely a
lucky blunder.

And I quite honestly haven't the slightest idea of how
to go about plugging this hole.

Oh well, it wouldn't be the first time I plunged into
a novel and then had to go back and make major repairs
on the beginning after writing enough to get a better
sense of the direction the whole is taking.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

I Didn't Know That

Today I was recopying some pages of story notes that
had become wet and were starting to mildew. As I was
doing so, I took the opportunity to further reflect on
them, and expanded upon them with other considerations
and possibilities, including queries about things I'd
since discovered while writing other stories in the
same universe.

As I did, what initially appeared as a problem sparked
a connection with something I'd been wanting to
introduce during that period of the timeline. Suddenly
the apparent contradiction was instead evidence of
something even deeper, which explained why the
identity switch at the root of this particular story
was such a threat, and had to be resolved, even if the
protagonist might be enjoying her new identity. At the
same time, it also sets the stage for the "grand
finale" novels for that universe.

Amazing how these things work out sometimes. Now if I
could just get some serious writing time, instead of
having to spend most of my time grinding away at

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Young Man on the Brink of Adventure

As I procede with this new story of Jan-Pawel
Trzetrzelewski's youth, I'm running into one of the
most problematic issues in writing a story with a
young protagonist. One of the cardinal rules of
fiction states that the protagonist must solve his or
her own problem, not have it solved by an outside
agency. But when the protagonist is a minor, his or
her latitude of activity is constrained in many ways
by adult authority. How does one create a situation
such that is is believable that the protagonist does
not immediately turn to an adult and hand the problem
over to be solved?

One possibility is a disaster which incapacitates the
normal adult authorities, leaving one's youthful
protagonist without anyone to fall back on. However,
Jan-Pawel's stories are not disaster stories, but more
on the order of spy or international intrigue stories.
Adult authority has not been incapacitated, but is
being subtly undermined from within and without.

Which leads to the second possibility for eliminating
the easy out of simply handing the problem over to the
grownups to be fixed -- adult authority does not
believe that the problem exists, and dismisses out of
hand the evidence offered by the youthful protagonist.
But such a technique must be handled very carefully,
lest it veer in the direction of idiot plot. If the
adult authority figures are so willfully blind that
they refuse to see clear evidence of a problem, simply
because it is necessary to the plot for them to be out
of the loop in this way, the story will suffer for it.

Yet at the same time, it has to be believable that a
villain who can defeat intelligent adults can still be
defeated by a teenage boy.

So tough to find the right balance.

Friday, September 23, 2005

I Must Be Nuts

Today I was supposed to have the whole afternoon to
finish up those articles that are due at the end of
the month. Instead, what do I do but start a story
about Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski when he was a teenager.
Like I need any more stories that I probably won't be
able to sell anyway.
And then I can't even manage to keep my mind on what
I'm reading because it keeps wanting to run back to
this first adventure of Jan-Pawel, long before he
entered the diplomatic service, when he was still
certain he wanted to be an actor and playwright.
I have got to get those last eight articles finished
for my September set on the long-term project, and
tidy up the four articles from the other project, and
get them all in the e-mail before we leave for Archon.
I really don't want to have to try to slide another
set of articles in after the deadline by pretending
that it doesn't matter because it's the weekend.
But it's so hard when my mind is full of this
Jan-Pawel story, and won't even stick to words right
in front of my eyes long enough to know what I'm
reading so I can write a coherent article.
It makes me almost wish the articles would just write
themselves and Go Away so I can write my stories in

That's Not What I Meant!

Recently Jimmy Akin has been having an interesting discussion about the price of goods in emergencies. He argues that what many people have recently been calling "price gouging," for instance, the sudden steep rise in gas prices following the damage to oil refineries by Hurricane Katrina, are not motivated by greed, but in fact reflect a shift in the natural price point of the commodity due to changed circumstances. However, another writer, Scott Richart of ChroniclesMagazine.Org, has argued on the basis of the concept of a "just price" that this is not true, and that there is an objectively proper price, at least for vital necessities, that should not be exceeded no matter the economic situation.

Part of the problem here is the simple fact that money has multiple uses, among them a metric of economic choice ("you may have A or B, but not A and B, pick one"), and a long-term store of value. When goods are in short supply, raising prices enables the seller to restrict the buyer's range of economic choices, thus reducing the likelihood of panic buying on the part of the first few people to arrive, which would leave the seller without anything to sell to later customers, who might well be more truly needy than those people who simply happened to get there fastest and grab with the biggest hands. (Jimmy Akin's argument) Sounds quite rational -- except that money also functions as a long-term store of value. If the store owner doesn't have to use that money to buy goods at inflated prices, but can instead hold onto the money until after the crisis is over and prices return to normal, the store owner is now wealthier and the customers poorer, leading to feelings that the store owner has improperly gained at the expense of others' misfortune. (Scott Richart's argument) Once one realizes that each correspondent is looking primarily at a different function of money, but that neither is realizing this disparity, the argument takes on a whole new level of meaning.

So how does all this relate to writing? Often, there is a tendency for writers to create overly simplistic conflicts -- everything is on the surface, and arguments between characters really are about what they're arguing about and nothing more. But in life arguments are often about something other than what they really seem to be about -- which is often how arguments escalate far out of proportion to the apparent issue, simply because the unrecognized real issues at stake are far higher than the relatively trivial issue that started the fight. Awareness of the difference between surface and underlying conflicts can often make the difference between an idiot plot, in which the characters refuse to take the obvious steps to resolve the conflict solely so the author can keep the story going, and a story that has the potential to keep the reader thinking long after THE END has been reached.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Now That's Odd

Yesterday my Tuesday post wasn't appearing on the blog
page, so I decided to rewrite it and send it again,
assuming that it had been lost in transmission. But as
soon as I sent the new version, the old version
appeared as well -- which looks really stupid.
I have no idea of what went wrong, unless it's
something to do with having to send my blog posts via
e-mail, since all my computers are so old that I can't
get into the regular Blogger tools with the browsers
I'm currently able to run. Eventually I'm hoping to
get the iMac upgraded so that I can run System X on
it, but if life doesn't slow down and give me a free
day or two to open up the computer and install the
equipment I need to put into it, that's going to be
indefinitely delayed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

An Entry Point at Last?

I think I may actually have an entry point for the
Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski sequence.

It's odd how these things work. I'd been struggling to
figure out how I could have a story in which he's
relatively junior, yet has enough authority to have
the latitude to actually do things. I knew that Cloak
and Shadow wasn't really the right place to start, but
it was the earliest that I could find.

Over the weekend, I had a very annoying person driving
me nuts with their overbearing, bossy manner. I was
getting sick of the way they'd let their new position
go to their head, and decided it was time to write
this offending person into a story -- and squash them.

Just like that, the whole story I needed came clear
for me. I finally understood what kind of a story I
needed. Jan-Pawel is dealing with this nasty boss,
trying not to get too annoyed -- and then the boss is
stricken, and Jan-Pawel has to pick up the pieces, in
a very messy political situation.

Now I just need to scrape together the time to write
it. Which, unfortunately, is often easier said than

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

An Entry Point at Last?

I think I may have finally found the elusive entry
point to the Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski sequence.
Ironically enough, the discovery came from one of the
more unhappy parts of our campout last week.

One of the people in the organization that runs the
campground seems to have let their new authority go to
their head in a big way. Suddenly they're taking a
great joy at bossing us around, which was really
getting on my nerves (needless to say, I really don't
like bossy people).

So I decided it was time to get my revenge, by writing
this person into a novel and bringing them down, hard.

Suddenly all the pieces are falling together in my
mind. This person is Jan-Pawel's boss, and is driving
Jan-Pawel nuts -- and then gets incapacitated in the
middle of a crisis, so Jan-Pawel has no time to feel
any Schadenfreude at having been suddenly relieved of
the obnoxious boss, because he's having to pick up the
pieces before everything really goes down the drain.
So I've got just the right balance between being
juinor enough to be sympathetic and being senior
enough to have the latitude to acutally do something.

Now I just need the time to actually write the thing.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Here We Go

So I'm starting writing Cloak and Shadow, preparing
Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski for his first independent
diplomatic assignment. Even as I'm writing, I'm
getting a steadily better sense of what will come

I'm hoping that this weekend's camping trip will give
me the time I really need to make some serious
progress on it. After all, I did the first four
chapters of Plausible Deniability while at a campout
this past spring.

But morreso, when I get back Sunday, it's going to be
time to buckle back down on non-fiction writing, which
means less time for fiction. Best to take full
advantage of the time while I have it.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

That Elusive Entry Point

So I'm going to be starting writing on Cloak and
Shadow, even while I know quite well that it's not the
proper entry point for the Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski
sequence. But I'm hoping that by writing it, or at
least a substantial portion of it, I can get a better
grasp on the early part of Jan-Pawel's life, and thus
a better sense of just where the best entry point is.
Of course I'll still be working on Plausible
Deniability, and some of the other novels between the
two of them. I'm hoping that by working on all of them
together, I'll get a better sense of the whole, and
thus be able to see where I'm starting from.
Not to mention the practical benefit of having several
novels close to completion when I do finish the first
one, so that I can present a publisher with the
possibility of having a whole series of books that can
be published in rapid succession, instead of having to
wait for sequels to dribble out, one by one.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Us and Them

In watching the coverage of the recent Hurricane
Katrina disaster, particularly as it has unfolded in
New Orleans, I was struck by how quickly and easily
people redefined the people stranded in the city as
"them." No longer "us," no longer part of the
community, but irreconcilable others who only
understand force and must be dealt with a firm hand
lest they rise up and destroy everything.

Not that there wasn't significant wrongdoing going on,
particularly the armed gangs robbing, raping and
shooting at the people who were trying to help, but
among many observers there seems to be a loss of the
distinction between the real thugs and people who were
just trying to get safe food and water in a city where
all civil structure had broken down. It's particularly
notieable in certain online fora, but the behaviors of
the National Guard and other organizations actually on
the ground reveals just such a shift of attitude,
often to the point of a disturbing contempt for even
obvious innocents such as small children, the disabled
and the elderly.

As a writer, I ponder how often we quickly delineate a
simplified "us and them" characterization in our
works, so that we encourage our readers to look at
people as such oversimplified groups, rather than
individuals with their own needs and hopes and drives.
And just how much does such oversimplification bleed
into our attitudes toward people we actually deal

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Still Looking for the Entry Point

I'm working steadily on an outline for the new novel
of Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski's first independent
diplomatic assignment, now tentatively entitled Cloak
and Shadow
. However, the further I go, the more I
become convinced that it's not the right entry point
either. Even here, there are just too many things that
feel like they need to have been developed by an
earlier novel -- yet to go further back, I'd have to
get into parts in which he is a subordinate with much
less latitude for independent action.
Sometimes all you can do is feel your way along until
you find the right place to begin.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Still Searching for that Entry Point

It looks like Triptych is definitely stuck, and just
jumping ahead a chapter or two isn't going to get it
moving. So it goes on the back burner to simmer for a
while, until I get some fresh insights on it.
Which means I'm back on Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski's
stories. I'm doing some further outlining on Plausible
Deniability, but at the same time I'm working on
outlining some novels dealing with his earlier life,
trying to find the proper entry point. One, dealing
with his first independent ambassadorial appointment,
is looking rather promising. However, I'm not entirely
satisfied with its suitability as the first novel in
the series, since it has some other issues that might
make the going rough for readers who have no previous
experience with my writing and particularly with
Jan-Pawel to make them willing to trust me until they
get into the story. On the other hand, if I go back to
a point before he had ambassadorial rank, when he was
still just a secretary, would he have enough seniority
and authority to do the things necessary to carry the
Sometimes there's no way to be sure but to write the
story -- and hope that you don't end up burning hours
of scarce writing time to no good effect.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Balancing Projects

Right now I'm bouncing back and forth between several different novels that are all wanting my attention. Tryptych seems to be stalled right now, although that may be as much because I need to do some more thinking about the world and how I'm going to bring my twenty-five-year-old vision of the story forward to work with my present skills. I'm pulling Plausible Deniability, the Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski novel, back out again, even while I know that it can't be the first in that sequence yet and I stll need to find the "On Basilisk Station" for it. And I'm wanting to get out some other novels that I've done various amounts of work on in the past.

Yet the more I divide my attention, the harder it is to get any one project finished. At the same time, if I stay too long with a project that has become stuck, I shut off the possibility that I could be making progress on a different project. It's a delicate balancing act to find the proper balance that keeps me moving forward, and hopefully results in completed novels that can be sent to a publisher, rather than a whole pile of half-completed works.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Bearing Witness

Over the last several days I've been struggling to
assimilate the images I've seen of Hurricane Katrina,
of whole cities in ruins, of one of our oldest and
most famous cities turned into hell on earth. It's
disturbing to see just how slender the line between
civilization and savagery still is, and how quickly
things can come apart altogether. It's appalling to
watch one's own government standing around with its
collective thumb up its butt while people are
literally dying for want of the most basic necessities
of life: clean water, food, medicine.
We were all so proud of how well people behaved in the
collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
There was none of the panic that is such a frequent
image in disaster movies, and many hurried to say that
such panic is but a cliché, a bit of movie shorthand
not reflected in life.
But this time we have seen another disaster trope come
true: namely, the complete collapse of civil order.
Which leads me to ponder what makes the difference
between the two disasters, such that one produced
solidarity and humanity, while the other produced
dissolution and inhumanity.
Fiction of necessity must often deal with people in
extremis, facing life-or-death situations in which
there are no good answers, only degrees of bad ones.
I myself have often used severe weather as an element
in my writing, since I have long been fascinated with
such phenomena. However, I find now that I must
reconsider my use of them, and particularly whether I
have completely underestimated the social element of
truly major disasters that wipe out whole areas'
abilities to respond to them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

That Pernicious Passive

In Dappled Things, Fr. Jim Tucker, a Catholic priest, has an interesting article on the use of targetted assassination as a tool of foreign policy (scroll down to "Secret Assassination Missions" to find the article). In particular, he focuses on a quotation dealing with "when lies must be told."
He focuses primarily on the moral and ethical aspects of such lies. However, he tangentally touches on a matter that is of importance to writers as well.
Note the construction. Who is telling these lies? It's almost as if the telling just sort of happens. Are the lies telling themselves? Do they just sort of pop out of people's mouths of their own volition?
This is why the passive voice is so beloved of bureaucrats and others who would like to avoid
responsibility. By shifting the sentence to the passive, you move the emphasis away from the actor, and onto the action or the result. Done with skill, it can make the actor vanish altogether.
Now imagine what happens when one brings that mentality to a work of fiction. Do you really want your characters to effectively vanish from the scene, to be upstaged by their disembodied actions?

Monday, August 29, 2005

Out with the Old, in with the New

The trunk. Every author has one, even if it isn't a
literal steamer trunk. Maybe it's a filing cabinet, or
several cardboard boxes, but whatever it may be, it's
full olf manuscripts. All those stories that never
quite worked out, or were shopped around until they
simply ran out of potential markets, but you just
can't bear to throw them in the trash and be rid of
them once and for all.
Because maybe they aren't completely worthless.
There's something in them that is meaningful to you,
so you hang onto them in case one day there's hope you
could actually make them work, if you can just get the
right insight.
So from time to time you revisit those old stories,
try to see what it was that captured your imagination
and see if you can recapture the magic in a new way.
Who knows -- sometimes the new perspective of a more
mature writer is just what you need to finally do an
idea right that you botched when you were younger.
Recently I pulled up an old novel that I'd originally
written while I was in jr. high and high school. When
I was an undergraduate student, I played with the idea
again, deciding to set it on another planet in order
to remove some of the more absurd pseudo-historical
elements, and wrote out a complete end-to-end outline.
Due to time pressures, I never actually started
writing on the new version, and finally ended up
setting it aside.
Recently, I was looking for a straightforward novel
that I could write reasonably quickly, and decided to
pull it back out and take a stab at it. However, no
sooner than I'd begun, I realized that the outline as
it stood simply wasn't going to work. The first
chapter was hopelessly clichéd as an opening, so I
dumped it and took what would have been that
character's second chapter to make into a new first
The more I looked through the existing outline, the
more problems I saw. One after another element of the
old story was going to have to be pulled out and
replaced with new ideas that would work better. Pretty
soon I could see that it was going to be useless for
anything except the most general of ideas as to where
I wanted the story to go. Far from having an
established roadmap to the story, I was going to have
to feel my way through from the beginning, hoping that
as I wrote each part, I would be able to see beyond it
far enough to keep going. And all the time I would
have to figure out how much of the old story I could
keep, and how much new material I will need.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Being a Perfect Stranger

A while ago a book was published entitled How to Be a
Perfect Stranger. It's aimed at people who need to
attend a religious service in a faith community with
which they are not personally familiar, and provides
information on what to expect and how to behave during
the service.

Thinking of it got me to thinking about how we as
authors handle faith in our fiction, and particularly
when we move outside the faith community to which we
belong or at least were raised in. Obviously we don't
want to misrepresent other people's religions, whether
in blatant ways like repeating vicious slanders
against a religion or mocking it with caricatured
images, or in subtle ways like perpetuating
misapprehensions about the faith's doctrine.

But are there other things we should take into
consideration when we as outsiders write fiction that
involves a faith to which we do not belong, no matter
how thoroughally and carefully we research the facts
of that religion? Do we have a special responsibility
to justify our fictional use of a religious tradition
not our own, above and beyond the sense in which every
element in a work of fiction needs to be justified?

For example, in my current short-story project, I'm
seriously looking at the possibility of a Catholic
priest providing some important moral guidance near
the climax of the story, which helps lead my
protagonist to the resolution of the storyline. I feel
confident that I have done enough research to portray
this character accurately as well as sympathetically,
and have several friends who are Catholic and who
would be willing to read the story with an eye to the
accuracy of my portrayal of the padre and any Catholic
dotrine he brings up. But the question comes back --
why a Catholic priest? Why not a minister in the
Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, the tradition in
which I was raised?

Beyond the issues of name recognition (Protestant
denominations are so varied that only the largest and
most prominent are familiar to the average reader),
there is also the advantage of perspective. Namely,
when you look at something from a different or
unfamiliar angle, sometimes you can see elements of it
you'd never noticed it before. Simply because the
padre isn't giving her the same old song and dance,
Vicky will have to listen closely to what he's saying
in a way she wouldn't if it were the minister of
whatever Protestant denomination her family belongs to
-- and thus can obtain insights about the moral
aspects of her situation that might completely pass
her by if she's only politely nodding along to a
message she's heard a dozen times before.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Entry Points and Short Fiction

It's deceptively simple in appearance, but hard in actual practice. Try to write a short story set in
your huge ficional universe, supposedly as a way of paving the road for ultimately getting the whole
series of huge novels published. But as you start out, you keep realizing that you've got to explain this element, or that element. Why does this sort of character do things in a certain way? Why
does a certain kind of technology (or magic) only work in a certain way and is always associated with a certain set of traits?

Complex relationships have been developed over the course of all those novels that are sitting in a
dresser drawer, waiting to be published. Someday. How to present these relationships -- or to somehow pull out one small section of them -- without doing violence to the whole, and quite possibly end up destroying the very novels you're trying to get published in the long term?

Recently I pulled back out a story that I originally wrote and abandoned almost ten years ago. It's set
several decades into my alternate-history universe about human cloning and an alternate fall of the
Soviet Union. In that world, America had its own human-biotechnology project in response to the Soviet one, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. But how can I establish this situation quickly enough so as not to totally overbalance a short story of reasonable length with a huge chunk of backfill at the beginning? And for that matter, how much information do I need to present in order to have the story be comprehensible, and what can I simply pass over as irrelevant to the story at hand?

One factor that I'm hoping to use to simplify the problem is my protagonist's relatively young age. It's
perfectly believable that a child of relatively tender years would be ignorant of the complexities of the
history that led to the world in which she lives. She simply accepts it as That Which Is.

However, a young child has relatively little latitude for action, often not enough to really carry a story. For instance, there are several places where my protagonist really needs to be able to come and go and to meet with people outside her family and school peer group without immediate parental supervision. Thus she needs to be old enough that her parents would believably let her get on a city bus by herself and go to the places she needs to go in the course of the story. But the older she is, the more she will be expected to know and understand about the history of the world she lives in, particularly as it relates to the biotech and the prejudice it has spawned. Round and round I go, in a frustrating circle. Can this story be saved, or is it a lost cause?

Friday, August 26, 2005

Points of Entry

Over this past summer I've been working on a novel I
really enjoy. However, the further I get into it, the
more I become convinced that this is not the right
novel to start with. It's simply not the entry point
to the macro-arc -- the protagonist is too high in
rank, he's facing too complicated a problem, etc. In
fact, it really feels more like a major climax, if not
a capstone to Jan-Pawel's diplomatic career.
The clearest comparison I can come up with is what it
would feel like if David Weber had begun his Honor
Harrington series with In Enemy Hands. By that book,
Honor is a relatively senior officer who clearly has a
lot of major character development and career building
behind her. By contrast, in the actual first novel in
the Honorverse, On Basilisk Station, Honor is a
relatively new captain, still awkward in her rank and
command. Because she is still so junior and uneasy,
there's plenty of room to see her as the underdog,
which helps gain our sympathies with her. As the
series develops, she attains high rank and becomes
confident in her position, but since we have followed
her on that journey, we have no difficulty in
sympathizing with her in spite of her exalted status.
So I need to figure out what should be the On Basilisk
Station-equivalent for Jan-Pawel Trzetrzelewski. He
needs to still be relatively junior, so that his rank
doesn't overwhelm and alienate us, yet at the same
time he needs to have sufficient rank that he'll have
the necessary latitude to act independently and make
his own decisions, as a protagonist must.
Having established Jan-Pawel as a competent and
sympathetic character, I can build from that point,
giving him progressively more responsible assignments,
until the moment when he gets the promotion that would
seem to end his diplomatic career. And then it turns
out that this isn't the end, that he will be heading
out on yet another diplomatic mission in spite of his
exalted rank. And thus begins the novel that I've been
working on all summer -- but which will probably be
several novels into the story of Jan-Pawel

Thursday, August 25, 2005

So What Is a Worldgate Anyway?

In science fiction and fantasy, a worldgate is a
portal which joins two worlds, generally the mundane
world of everyday life and the world of wonders in
which the story will be set. Generally the protagonist
or protagonists travel through it at or near the
beginning of the novel, and after the conclusion of
their adventures they return to mundane life, taking
with them only what they have learned in the course of
their experiences.

There are exceptions, of course. In the first book of
Andre Norton's Witch World series, the protagonist
does not have to return to his own world at the
conclusion of the book, but instead is able to remain
in the Witch World with his new-found love, there to
found a dynasty. But the general pattern is for the
protagonist to return home in the end.

Another kind of worldgate is part of the deep
background of a fictional world, and permitted whole
populations to migrate from a rather ordinary world to
worlds of wonder. In Sherwood Smith's world of
Sartorias-deles (Crown Duel and the forthcoming Inda),
the human population is not native, but came from
Earth via one or more worldgates. My own fictional
world of Ixilon was repopulated in a similar manner
after its original inhabitants wiped themselves out in
a terrible war. The short story "Spiral Horn, Spiral
Tusk" makes reference to the subsequent migrations of
Boston Yankees and of Cavaliers from the English Civil
War, and how their two societies formed an uneasy new

In a more metaphorical sense, any work of science
fiction or fantasy is a worldgate, for it takes the
reader, however briefly and at second hand, to another
world to have adventures and experience wonders. The
very best of them can make us forget that we are
sitting in a chair with a book in our hands, and make
us feel as though we are actually there.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Writer and the World

For a writer, all the world is one's inspiration -- and for the writer of science fiction and fantasy, there is also the privelege of creating a world of one's own, and hopefully making it so real to one's readers that they feel as though they are actually there.

Yet it is often a difficult process, fraught with frustration and setbacks at every turn. But when one succeeds, the reward makes all the pain worth it.

Unfortunately, non-writers often fail to understand the process. For those to whom "writing" means dutifully cranking out a thank-you note, the process of writing fiction can often be bewildering, or even look like no process at all. How do you explain that you really are working on your story or novel when you're just sitting motionless, struggling with a recalciterant plot element or a character who refuses to clarify in your mind? To them, you should be able to sit down and start at the beginning and write through to the end, and if you're just sitting there, you're obviously loafing and therefore you can come help them with this, that or the other chore.

And even when you finally get your story or novel written, there's the problem of getting it published. The endless rounds of submissions and rejections, the constant nagging doubt as to whether you really have what it takes, whether you're just a fool with delusions of ability when you have nothing to show for your work but a pile of rejection slips and receipts for postage. Is it any wonder if those around you smile that patronizing little smile and say, "Isn't it time to come back down to earth and do some REAL work?"

But the stories never go away. Even when you try to put them into that nice little box and "give up childish dreams," the characters come back like old friends to whisper in your ears, and soon you're jotting down "just a little" that soon becomes a full-fledged story, a novel, even a series of novels.

It's in our blood. We can't give it up.