Thursday, August 28, 2014

Get On The Train

I had lunch with one of my more successful friends who spoke of writing and what editors look for. He related that you want to get readers INTO the story and keep them there.

There is a real sense that reading transports the reader from where they are to where the story is. The reader finds a comfortable chair in her study, begins reading, and finds herself hurtling between Earth and Mars.

At least this is what the writer is trying to do and the editor is looking for.

It is painful to give up on a story. It is also painful to stick with a story that sucks. When you hear me gripe about throwing William Faulkner against the wall, you know it was as painful for me as it was for Mr. Faulkner. And it's more painful when I get to the end of a miserable novel and say, "I won't get that time back."

That's why editors see themselves as gatekeepers. They seek to spare the reading public pain. This should not be mere altruism, because readers who buy one book from an author will look to buy more books from him/her. A successful imprint will spare readers pain. A superior imprint will establish a reputation of consistently bringing readers prose they want to read.

I have seen that the best stories define a world alien to the reader and puts her in that world. And I'm not just thinking of Mars or Mordor, but of the way Tom Clancy put you inside the Reagan Military Industrial Complex, or the way John Grisham puts you inside a high powered legal practice.

OK, sounds good. How do you do that?

And that's where my conversation with my friend took me. He related three things. I'll do an imperfect job of representing them, so bear with me if you've heard them elsewhere:

  • Description/Setting
  • Character/Emotion
  • Plot/Ideas

One of the best compliments I've received in my writers group was, "I felt I was there." I described a scene where Mycroft Holmes is sitting on a lonely Victorian train platform a little nervous because the last train for London should, but might not, be along shortly and was late.

At every moment of our lives we are inundated with sensa. Millions of details impinge upon us, and somehow we ignore all of them save for the sound of wind rustling in the trees, bicycle tires crunching on gravel, and a bird squawking in the distance. Light filtering through those trees dapple cars, tents, and travel trailers while children call out to their siblings.

The writer selects those details most significant to the story and paints them with words. It takes a good grasp of the language, an awareness of how perception works, and an artistic sense to guide what details to include or exclude.

The purpose of this work is to take the reader out from in front of her computer and into P J Hoffmaster State Park. If you were there two paragraphs ago, I've succeeded. If you're someplace else next time you read "It was a dark and stormy night," that writer has succeeded.

Then there is character and/or emotion. We are people who are all the same and we're all different. Others attract us and fix our attention with their beauty, whereas others are more like the cobra who paralyzes his prey. I used to wish someone would kill Darth Vader in the very next scene, until I realized that he was as important to the story as a worthy antagonist as the young hero opposing him. The similarities within us to elements within Jane Porter or Tarzan attract us to them. The differences hold our interest as we wonder what it would be like to be raised by the apes and consort with animals. Or to love and marry an English Lord who is prone to savage violence, yet nonetheless civilized.

The characters you can devise and populate your stories with is one thing, but the acid test is making them real to the reader. I say to avoid superlatives, because in our lives we encounter superior people, but we never meet THE BEST Olympic high jump champion (because he's at the track practicing). Yet we encounter fellas who can jump higher than we imagine possible. And that superiority is (in real life) the result of talent, learned skills, and relentless practice.

I find it most annoying when a character is described with certain attributes useful to the story, but without any of the antecedents of that attribute. You're the Empire's greatest swordsman. And you're the Empire's greatest pilot. And you'r the Empire's greatest Admiral. So, how much time do you spend in the gym practicing? Or on the flight simulator? Or writing memoranda justifying the next quarter's budget?

The reader must find your characters and their interactions believable. If two women want to sleep with the same man, they are likely to feel some hostility toward one another.  Or if they are contending for the same promotion at work. Is the subordinate unusually loyal to his boss? Maybe the reader should know the boss saved his life in Afghanistan. Or showed up at the hospital when he had cancer surgery.

This requires the writer to be a keen observer of psychology.

Finally, there is plot or ideas. This is what I love about an Agatha Christie novel. Each mystery is a puzzle story for the reader to figure out. Is Lord Peter Whimsey the most interesting detective? No. Is Harriet Vane a bit too bitchy for my tastes? Yes. Ah, but look at how they work together to break a Playfair cipher? Some readers are as crazy as I am and we will eat it up when Neal Stephenson interrupts his novel to write a chapter of mathematics text. Note that many more readers will skip this chapter like I skipped twenty pages of John Galt sermonizing. The idea must be interesting to most people, not just crazy people like me.

If you've got a "wow" idea you're at risk of putting that idea ahead of the story.

If you are a Social Justice Warrior, you may want The Message to take priority over story. That's your right, and I'm sure lots of editors out there will oblige you. But keep in mind there are politicians, talk-show hosts and reporters out there better suited to bringing out cutting-edge propaganda.

Since I'm none of the above, I want to give the story priority. And I'll seek out editors of whatever politics who'll put story over message. It's important that you do not insist too much on political agreement, because only totalitarians insist that everything is political. Our shared humanity is more interesting than today's two-minute hate.

Whatever the idea, the writer has to be an expert in it so that s/he can capture the details that other experts will expect and that non-experts will subconsciously sense are missing. You can fake it a little, but if you get caught faking it, you risk alienating the expert-readers who would otherwise promote your work with great passion.

They say you shouldn't mix your metaphors and so far we've had this metaphor of the train where you want to entice readers to get on and make them want to stay on for the ride of their lives.

But I've been talking as much about what you the writer want to do as much as you the reader want to experience. And I think that you-the-writer should have a different metaphor when you are thinking about your skill-set. In American baseball, the pitcher can throw the ball in different ways. There's what's called a fastball where the ball is thrown hard and straight and fast. The ball must be past the batter before he can get the bat around to hit it. Then there's the curve, it's a slower ball that bends in flight. The batter swings and misses because the ball "broke" in an unexpected direction. Finally, there is the change-up, a ball that appears to be a fast ball, but is much slower than the batter expects. The batter swings before the ball gets to the plate. (There are other pitches, but we'll ignore them for this metaphor.)

A baseball pitcher won't get to the major leagues without mastering at least one of these pitches. He'll be able to consistently get batters out if he can master two of these pitches. And if he can master three of these pitches, he stands a good chance of being a hall-of-famer.

You, gentle writer, should improve what you do best--be it description, character, or plot, but you should also be aware of, and try to improve those other attributes of writing that bring a reader into the story and keep her there.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hire the Morally Handicapped

A long time ago, as a student at a Baptist college, I was on a Christian service assignment that took me to a hotbed of liberalism, homosexuality, and recreational drug commerce. There I saw a bumper sticker, "Hire the Morally Handicapped," and I've been chuckling about it ever since.

In fact, every time I drive up to a store and see all the empty parking spaces reserved for the handicapped, I remind myself that I can say I am morally handicapped after all...

Of course, you can't say someone is good or evil in our society. It's double-plus-ungood. And I suppose that saying one is morally handicapped is single-plus-ungood, too. So, to be politically correct, let's just say that those Republicans (if you're a Democrat) or those Democrats (if you're a Republican) or those Republicans and Democrats (if you're a Whig like me), are neither evil nor morally handicapped, but differently ethic-ed.

Though I started out joking about being differently ethic-ed, the term has explanatory power. Though moralists have had to go underground in Hollywood (unless it's attacking Christian hypocrisy), you can find moralists alive and well in Bollywood. And I'm cool with this, because I like a moral message in the stories I consume.

I've mentioned before that watching Bollywood and paying attention to its morality is illuminating. For instance, when a bad guy kills the good guy's mother in the 2nd reel of a movie, it is obligatory for the good guy to exact an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth vengeance in the 3rd reel of that movie. Contrast this with the American pattern of killing the antagonist just as dead, but after s/he/it goes for its gun leaving the hero No Choice.

Mindful of this I watched a snippet of a Shahrukh Khan movie. It didn't have subtitles, but it was very interesting. It is called Pardes. So, I looked it up on Wikipedia for an explanation of what I'd just seen.

(By the way, if you ever see a Shahrukh Khan movie and he's all bloody in the climatic scene, it's likely a romantic comedy.)

In Pardes, we see a conflict between Indian and American morality. The presumption in Pardes is that America is morally corrupt and it has no problems with smoking, drinking, or sexual infidelity. And that Indian morality is much better.

This isn't quite fair. Unless you're President Clinton, Americans think that adultery and sexual infidelity is morally wrong.

If you're a good Baptist who doesn't drink, smoke, or chew, nor go with girls that do, we think these things are as moralistic as Indians. Nevertheless, many good Baptists do not live up to these moral aspirations. (BTW I hear there are more Baptists in India than anywhere outside the US and Britain.)

The antagonist of this film is morally handicapped in both the Indian and the Baptist sense, while the heroic Shahrukh Khan works to protect the antagonist's reputation at great cost to his own reputation. And his own happiness, because he hides the antagonist's evil from his love interest who happens to be engaged to the antagonist.

As you'd expect of Bollywood, the source of conflict is family honor: it requires the girl to marry an obviously unsuitable fellow.

Ultimately, the antagonist's father relents, acknowledges Shahrukh Khan's virtue, and grants a happily ever after to everyone save the lothario. The Moral Of The Story is clear: Indian Morals are better than American Morals, as seen by Shahrukh Khan's nobility versus the Americanized antagonist's vice.

I was nodding and going along with this line of thinking until I tripped over this little bit of the wiki plot summary:

"Ironically, it also highlights one way in which Western culture can be viewed as more just and compassionate than Indian culture, since a Western bride can break off an unsuitable engagement without risking death at the hands of outraged family members."



Good point.

This shows us something important about moralizing. It's easy to be blinded by the customary, and traditional to that which is obviously very wrong. The Savior's warnings about motes and beams in eyes come to mind as do his woes upon those who idolize tradition.

I'm not suggesting that your storytelling refrain from moralizing or from espousing a moral position or condemning wrongdoing when you see it. However, when you do, maintain the humility to recognize your own moral shortcomings.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Don't Sell Your Soul

I tried to ignore this story about a guy complaining about his father who is a "right wing a-hole." Depending upon the day and my mood, I can fit or be made to fit into this pigeonhole. And when I have participated in such conversations, it's generally been unpleasant.

But then I heard just enough of Andrew W. K.'s reply that I realized he was making a point closely related to one that I had made a while back. So, if he's agreeing with me, he must be right. Right? I had noted that when interacting with someone who is selling something, their humanity becomes eclipsed by their sales pitch. And if the product is the Republican/Democrat party, the sales pitch is political propaganda. Talk to a spokesman/activist and you can find yourself conversing with someone who is indistinguishable from a spambot.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Social Justice Warrior, you just failed my anti-Turing test."

What Andrew W. K. said that snagged my attention was this sentence: "Try to find a single instance where you referred to your dad as a human being, a person, or a man." Maybe the dad was so monomaniacal in his right-wing advocacy that it eclipsed his humanity. That's a real risk. OR maybe the "Son of a Right Winger" was so monomaniacal in his left-wing beliefs that it blinded him.

I have to acknowledge the humanity of humans who are anti-Turing test failures.

This turned my notion of an anti-Turing test inside out. Or it provided a hint at what an anti-Turing test should look for. Humans can recognize other humans. And should recognize other humans. Seriously bad things happen when people ignore/deny the humanity of the other. Prior to the Civil War Huck Finn might say, "Nobody got killed except some n-----s." Hutus deny the humanity of Tutsis. Turks deny the humanity of Armenians. Nazis deny the humanity of Jews. (Yes, I've Godwinned this note. Deal with it.)

If you can't/won't see the humanity of the other, your own humanity is jeopardized.

Perhaps this is what older generations meant by "selling one's soul." 

Democrats turned the funeral of Senator Paul Wellstone into a political pep-rally. They got spanked by the electorate because of its obvious ghoulishness. But the ghoulishness wasn't obvious to them because the humanity of everyone involved had been sacrificed on the altar of partisan interests. The same lack of perspective is on display when a "Pro-Lifer" murders an abortionist.

When you read classics, the ancients' axe-grinding occasions only a quizzical "what?" But we read classics because the ancients did more than just grind axes: they shared some truth about humanity they understood. Propaganda has a limited shelf-life after which it becomes--at best--a joke, then irrelevant.

One must retain one's soul in order to create art. Art manifests something transcendent and it flees pornography. This makes some think that Liberalism is killing art when it asserts that Art is always political. Political totalitarianism is a blight on our culture.

If you deny the assertion that Art must put the correct political message first, you'll be called an International Lord or Hate, a cismale gendernormative fascist, or something as bad. Of course, I'd rather be called that then sell my soul to The Cause--any cause.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Gun Magic

There is a lot of infantile thinking about guns. It is nothing new. If you do not understand guns, they are sort of like magic. You point them at something you want destroyed and pull the trigger. And something bad happens to whatever you're aiming at. Hollywood perpetuates this sort of magic thinking by having guns somehow kill all the terrorists when Jamie Lee Curtis drops a machine pistol in True Lies or all those old westerns where the two gunfighters face off at the edge of town. One shoots, the other falls immediately dead.

Louis L'Amour complained about this in the '70s. He knew his stuff because he was exacting in his historical research. Sorry Toshiro Mifune, but the Seven Samurai isn't a perfect translation into the Magnificent Seven. Americans do not do unarmed peasants.

Black Bart couldn't terrorize a town full of Civil War veterans who were trained in warfare. Maybe he was the fastest gun in the west but he could still die from a shotgun blast in his back. Or if the town is mad enough, he might face six shotguns with the warning that you might kill one of us but you won't kill all of us and you'll be just as dead.

L'Amour claimed the face off at the edge of town was exceedingly rare. And when it did take place, a big guy full of adrenaline won't go down with only one shot. Because he had been a boxer as a young man, his fistfights are often better than his gunfights.

A gunfight isn't a duel between magical weapons where one shoots and the other dies. It's a fight where damage causing attacks are exchanged until one or both sides can no longer hit the other.

People who know something about guns understand this. Most of what you read in books or see in movies does not reflect this understanding. The gunfight brings the climax of the story with a bang and you immediately segue into the denouement and start selling the sequel.

Mindful of this I was reading a thumbsucker about the N most important Science Fiction novels. I was impressed by the inclusion of stories that inspired nothing but eye-rolls when I tried to read them, and I was impressed by the omissions.

(Likewise, I was reading a collection of the best SF stories of last year and after reading one that I knew was excellent, I was impressed by the next two that made me think, "what made that special?" I suppose I would have to be a Social Justice Warrior to understand.)

I figure an SF novel is not important if it reiterates The Message that the SJWs are pushing, but it is important if it changes the direction of the genre. Someone in the '40s and '50s got everyone to writing novels with a rocket ship on the cover. Someone in the '60s got everyone to writing novels with a mushroom cloud with grateful dead in the foreground on the cover. I'll call those important SF stories.

Tom Clancy's Hunt For Red October was important because it got a lot of stories about the Reagan military build-up. The whole field of military SF took off at this time.

But let's backtrack to those 1950s B-quality SF movies. Not the high brow ones like Forbidden Planet, but the cheap ones with giant ants, spiders, etc. You know, like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. The ones made on the other side of the pond were a little more posh, like The Day of the Triffids, but they all followed the same pattern:

Radiation or something mutates ants into the size
of houses. Or a space comet drops spores on Earth and blinds people while the spores grow into giant people-eating plants. In such a movie the first reel is spent learning Something is Not Right. The second reel is spent convincing someone official to Take Action. The third reel is then divided in two halves: Our Guns Have No Effect on the monster, and finally Something Trivial devastates the monster.

(Something Trivial? Consider something as ubiquitous as water. If you're the alien in Signs, it'll kill you. Same for those carnivorous plants in Day of the Triffids. (Don't forget the wicked witch of the west.) In these movies it serves as Something Trivial to be pulled out at the Dark Moment to act as a deux ex machina and save the day.)

This happens because if guns are magic, then the writer can turn off their magic. 

All this made me grow bored and tired of the entire Horror genre. I wanted to just yell at the idiot who tries to escape the chainsaw wielding fiend by jogging backwards in the forest. The slasher movies were the most annoying. There were tantalizing glimpses of a better way. The scene in Nighthawks with Sly Stallone in drag, or the world's shortest slasher film.

But the old tired pattern is risible to anyone familiar with guns. If you shoot a vampire, the kinetic energy of the round has to go somewhere as it goes through the monster's body. And if the round doesn't interact with the matter of the vampire, then how can the monster interact with other matter, say the girl's neck to be bitten or her blood to be sucked?

This sets the stage for someone like Larry Correia to write Monster Hunter International novels. He's a firearms instructor and he's trained civilians and lawmen in how to use guns effectively. You can call him a gun nut, but you'd better smile when you say that.

He respects guns enough to have the round do SOMETHING to the monster, even if it is less than sufficient to kill the beastie. Consider the opening scene of the first Monster Hunter International novel. Our Hero encounters a werewolf. You know, werewolves cannot be killed except with wolfbane and silver bullets. But Our Hero empties his gun in the beastie and it keeps coming, and he uses his fists. It keeps coming, he pushes it out a fourth-floor window, then he drops a desk on top if it.

No wolfbane, and no silver bullets. The werewolf (a young one) cannot regenerate fast enough to survive the blunt force trauma of a desk falling on his head.

At some point, even monsters have to obey the laws of physics. And that awareness is what Larry Correia brought to the telling of monster stories. It changes the entire horror genre. Instead of being helpless, or utterly dependent upon a stupid gimmick, the forces of good can innovate and come up with better ways to fight evil. When "our guns have no effect on the monster" let's try bigger guns. (And if your heroes don't have bigger guns, they can make do like the Finnish did when they beat the Russians in WW2. Like this.)

Making guns less magical
is a very helpful thing for the horror genre. And I think that when more writers realize that guns are not magic, they'll use them more effectively in their storytelling. This makes Monster Hunters important SF/horror stories.

Those more worthy than I: