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 clich├ęd as an opening, so I
dumped it and took what would have been that
character's second chapter to make into a new first
chapter.
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
Trzetrzelewski.

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
nation.

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.