The Difference Fifty Years Makes

Observing people is an important part of creating characters. I do it constantly, but not deliberately, it’s just part of my nature. Every stranger I watch for more than a few minutes, everybody I know and spend time with, even people in audiences, contribute to my stock of character traits. Characters are not the way they cut their hair, the way they dress, or even their position in life, their history, or their backgrounds, though those can greatly influence who they are. Readers aren’t interested in most of that anyway.

What’s important when portraying characters is how people talk, how they move, how they stand or sit or walk. These traits can remain constant for most of their lives, from mid teens till nearly when they die. Disease, accidents, and senility, of course, make radical changes. We all know people who are “not themselves.”

It isn’t often that we get to observe people after a great span of years, to see how they still are who they are, and how they have changed. But it is those whom we see infrequently who are able to give the insights the writer needs for characters. That which remains unchanged after years, or decades, is the core of the person, the most important part.

~

We got up at four in the morning Thursday (April 27) so we could catch a plane to Dallas/Fort Worth, and from there to Ontario, California, for college reunions — my 50th, Diane’s 45th, and Darcy’s 10th. We got there about two in the afternoon. The weather was perfect, there were lots of memories, lots of classmates to talk to, some decent food, and despite the changes to the campus, it was still Pomona College.

One time, several years ago, someone told me, “You can’t really go back, it’s not the same as it was.” He was both right and wrong. There were new buildings and faculty and landscaping, but it was still Pomona. I think of my father when I was a kid, and I think of him toward the end of his life. The differences are profound, and extreme. But he was still my father.

Everybody seemed to have accomplished a lot in the last fifty years. Law, medicine, real estate, astronomy, physics and chem and bio, and government, and many had received recognition for their contributions in one area or another.

And then there was me. I was the only one, I believe, who had a full-time career in writing fiction. Not serious fiction, like one of the faculty, but science fiction, fantasy, and weird stuff. When people asked me, I told them about some of the books I had written, the projects I’m working on now, and I had to admit that I was not famous or successful, and that writing was only half my job. The other half was household management, that is, doing the things my mother did when I was a kid, while Diane does what my father did, which is to make a living for us.

We left Pomona about eleven Sunday morning, and because of terrible weather in Dallas, we didn’t get home until after supper on Monday, and I’m still recovering.

~

The whole experience was valuable to me as a writer, as it has been, every five years since my 25th. People grow older — the lucky ones do — and change, sometimes a lot. But they are still the people I knew. Some aged well, others not so well, but who they were as people remained more or less the same. I could recognize them from a distance by the way they moved. I could look at a face and see, behind a mask of fifty years, the face I once knew.

The Perfessor, in the comic strip Shoe, said one time, “My body may be seventy three, but it’s still me in there.”

This is very useful to me, as a writer of fiction. I need to be able to create, or discover, characters who have the full fourth dimension of time, whether it be just a few weeks or fifty years. Seeing both the change and the continuity at the same time adds dimension. I don’t portray older characters as stereotypically older. I strive to portray them as they are, at their core, carrying the weight of their experience.

Someone once asked me if I ever wanted to be twenty five again. I said that I wouldn’t mind having the strength and vigor and flexibility, but I would never want to give up the experience and growth. I can see the college students in my classmates, but fifty years have made them wiser, stronger, more interesting, and a lot more fun to be with. My characters will benefit from what I have learned.

I don’t always have an answer

Writing a book, for me, takes a while, is a multi-stage process. Planet Masters and Pursuit of Diana were exceptions. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes more, in some cases much more. I’ve been working on The Black Ring, based on an idea I had sixty five years ago. Not writing all the time…

Typically, given a workable idea, there are notes, sketches, maps, sometimes research, sometimes outlines (to which I do not have to adhere), or scene lists, or plot points, all before the first rough draft. The rough draft is to just get everything down on paper (or on screen). It’s kind of a jumble, and needs everything, like dialogue, and description, and clean text. It’s a kind of skeleton rather than an outline, needing flesh, innards, ligaments, nerves, integument, skin, clothes. When that’s all done, I have my first draft. Sometimes I get rough and first at the same time.

With that draft I have everything, and I said it all the (nearly) right way. I almost always did a second draft (it’s many more drafts than that now), just to make sure of consistency, that I’ve not left any thing out, or any loose ends. Then maybe a polish. Back in those days, my stories were a lot simpler, the plots were a lot more direct, the characters, while realistic, weren’t all that deep.

The last book I wrote that way was The Eye In the Stone.

There are varous reasons (not excuses) for a publishing career to suffer an extended interruption. I may write about those another time. But I didn’t stop being a writer, despite the demands made on my time, such as managing the family while we were in England, or being the full-time father when Darcy was born. I was always a writer, and I always will be.

But the effect has been, when I was able to devote myself full time to writing novels, not just to collecting ideas and sketches and drafts, that a lot of time had passed. And I was working differently, and had learned a lot (some of which had to be unlearned). My next book (not counting Cat Tales, Closet for a Dragon, and Freefoot), was Stroad’s Cross. It had been in development for years, not months. It was not a simple plot, it had several sub-plots. It wasn’t easily categorized, as mystery or horror or supernatural. There were complex characters with a lot more depth. And it was big.

Sturgis was a short novel, written over only about two years, but it too had a complex plot, a detailed setting and context, rather complex characters, and was either mystery or horror or supernatural.

Dead Hand, in development for a very long time, was much the same, a big book with 92 scenes, 52 viewpoint characters, and I haven’t counted how many sub-plots. It was complex and uncategorizable. That last being why I went to self-publication.

Slaves of war was a major reworking of an old space opera plot, quite simple by comparison.

Then There’s the Black Ring.

Stroad’s Cross, Dead Hand, and Black Ring have all gone through many drafts, some parts more than others. The point being, that I have read each of those texts many times. Lots of many times. Over and over again many times. And in each case I thought I was done.

I put them away for a while, so I could come back and read them again, objectively, as if reading for the first time, and could fix whatever showed up after the break. And I discovered that a paragraph, or a page, or several pages are garbage. And I have no idea how I missed that, considering all the times I have read that paragraph, or page, or pages. See my previous post.

I can fix those problems now, but how did they get past me, when I have been so careful, have re-read so often, have applied all my hard-earned editorial skills? Over and over again.

It isn’t just a matter of editorial objectivity. My three-stage polish uses techniques which I have developed to ensure my objectivity, even when reading my own text. Which is how I found these problems eventually. And even outside editors miss things, as I learned while correcting scans of Pursuit of Diana for my Books site.

Well, I can tell you this, if I knew how I had missed those problems for so long, I would have caught them when I made them, and I wouldn’t be writing this post.

The Distressing Consequences of Growth

I have been struggling once again with revising the first page of a chapter, a page which has been written, rewritten, revised and corrected, then revised again, and corrected again many times over the years, then put through a two-stage polish, at which time I thought it was done. That was was a couple years ago.

I decided to go through the book one more time, just before publishing it. I’ve been doing a three-stage “final” polish one chapter at a time, and as I read through chapter 109 this morning, I found that the first page or so was a complete mess. I could not visualize what was happening. There were passages where the author was explaining to the readers what they already knew. There were other passages where the author was reminding the readers of what they had just read in the previous chapter. It was garbage, and the bad part was ,that the author was me. It was almost as if that page was really just a rough draft instead of a final one. After all that work, how could I have ended up with something so bad?

Part of the answer is that I have been growing a lot during the last few years, learning new skills and sensibilities, and at what appears to be an accellerated rate. What had seemed to be okay then just isn’t okay any more.

For one thing, I have made certain decisions about sentence structure, word usage, punctuation, vocabulary, and phrase order, which I am using to develop a personal writing style — not for the sake of style, which is an authorly thing, but for clarity, narrative flow, readability, and sense of story, which is a storyteller thing. And I am learning more about what that style should be. Sometimes it takes several readings to make the style consistent. It’s so easy to fall back into old habits.

For another thing, I am developing my narrative voice. I discovered, while working on Dead Hand, that my voice was very different from what I had been used to. I started to “correct” it, but decided to develop it, and make it consistent instead. And I learned that I should not use the same voice for different stories, but should use an appropriate narrative voice for each. Dead Hand, Stroad’s Cross, SturgisThe Black Ring, and Slaves of War each have different voices, though the voices are all mine. And they all written in my developing style.

It’s true that the last time I worked on chapter 109, I had something like thirty five years writing experience. But my expectations and standards have risen a lot. And my stories are now more complex. And I’m making greater demands on myself. So I’m seeing faults and problems which are real, (and which could sometimes cause editors to reject a book,) but which I just could not see even two years ago.

When I run into a difficult passage, such as the first page of chapter 109, which requires massive revisions, and takes over two hours, the fact that I can now see these problems should be reassuring instead of distressing. It simply means that I have grown. Instead of being upset that I had somehow let those problems slip by, I should feel good about now being able to fix them before publication. The alternative is to not grow, and if I’m not growing as a writer, not constantly getting better even if by tiny increments, then it’s time for me to quit.

Fortunately, I don’t find problems like that in everything I write.

Thinking About Thinking

Sometimes, when writing in third person, you want the reader to know what your character is thinking. In first person you just have them (he or she) think. In third person you have to make decisions about how to do it.

You can say “he thought”, as in, “I need a boyfriend, she thought.” Or, “He thought he would go get a hamburger.” You could, but this is the narrator telling the reader what the character thought, not showing the thought, and it pulls readers away from their identification with the character.

There are times when “he thought” is best. As in, “He thought about it all morning before making up his mind.” You really don’t want to show the reader three or four hours of thought. In this case, it’s the thinking that’s important, not the thought itself.

You can use italics.  “He looked into the dealer’s window. Now that’s a car I’d like to have.” But italics is more commonly used for emphasis, “It was the red car, not the green one.” How do we represent that here, when his thought is, “Now that’s a car I’d like to have.” You can’t un-italisize for emphasis in this case. Italics does have a place, when using foreign words, representing telepathy, (with roman for emphasis), and so on.

If you really want to show, not tell, or indicate, a character’s thought, the best way is to just do it.

“She sat alone in the restaurant, watching the other customers. She needed a boyfriend. At last the waiter came to take her order.” Note that its “she needed,” not “she needs,” which is the narrator commenting. Not intruding, just present in a Dickensian way. Or “I need,” which is a verbalization of her thought, and she’s feeling a need, saying the words to herself.

Most casual thought is non-verbal, despite what some experts (or “experts”) believe, that you can’t think without words. Give yourself two seconds, and think about the taste of pineapple. Now in those two seconds, what words did you use? None, you just remembered the taste, without going into a long culinary description, taken from the pages of Bon Apetite. When I want a coffee, I just get up from my chair, go into the kitchen, and make it (or wonder, why did I come into the kitchen?). I don’t think, “I guess I’ll get up from my chair…”. (Unless I’m actually talking to myself, which I do rather frequently, and answer myself too.) This is the narrator translating the non-verbal thought, which is actually something more like, “mmm, hmm, ahh”.

Note: I put punctuation where it indicates the speaking voice, not grammatical structure.

You can can say, “He thought about the taste of pineapple,” without translating or non-verbalizing. Which is why conveying a character’s thoughts takes some, um, thought on the writer’s part. So, think about it.

Thanks to Stevens Miller for reminding me about this topic.

A Stopping Point that Shouldn’t Be There.

I’ve been working since September, putting a “final” polish on my six-volume epic heroic fantasy, The Black Ring. I had thought, when I last worked on it in February 2015, that it was finished and done, but I decided to go over it one more time. And most of it is okay, but some of it is not.

At the moment, I’m in the middle of chapter 108 in volume six. I last worked on it a little over two years ago. And these few pages are a mess. Descriptions are incomplete, out of place, contradictory, or impossible to visualize. Characters are not responding to suddenly being someplace strange, or suddenly in an altered physiology, or are just standing and talking without doing anything. It’s depressing and frustrating, because the last time I read these pages, in February 2015, they seemed to be just fine, and I thought I was done with them.

Some chapters go smoothly, with just a little polish needed. Others take more work, dealing with wording and phrase order more appropriate to non-fiction than to story. The first pages in many chapters need more work, if there has been a change of scene or time. But the few pages I spent six hours on yesterday were especially bad. I guess I must have been very tired when I read it two years ago. I have since learned that when I feel tired, I should take a brief break. Or even a nap.

But then, too, I’ve learned a lot since then, and I keep on learning. My voice is becoming more distinctive, and more consistent. My style is becoming clearer, and more consistent, and is different from what it was. It’s easier for me to distinguish between text appropriate for non-fiction and that which works best with fiction. So I shouldn’t feel bad about those pages not having been written well, the way I see them now. I should feel good about being able to see that now, and being able to set it right before anybody else reads it and decides to stop right there. Like I did.

But it is still depressing, and frustrating, and exhausting.

 

Something to say, a story to tell

I don’t write just for the sake of writing. I write because I have something to say that I may want to share with others, or which I do not want to forget. I write because I have stories I want to tell, and I want to tell them my way. In a certain sense, all my stories, that is novels, are exerimental.

This makes it difficult for me to get a traditional publisher. Most of the larger publishers want novels, or non-fiction, which is safe, that will almost certainly make back the expense of publication, if not a lot more. This makes perfectly good sense, from a certain point of view. But it means that any novel that isn’t instantly classifiable by the marketing department is difficult if not impossible to place. Marketing departments, after all, aren’t interested in literature. They’re interested in moving product.

Many writers, most published writers, have learned how to live and work with this situation, and produce good books, and sometimes excellent books. I have done it myself — well, the “good” part anyway. But it is becoming more important to me to write only the stories that I really want to read, stories which are truly my own even if they are outside the confines of marketability.

It’s not my intention to be deliberately experimental just for the sake of experiment. I just want to try new things, try better ways, learn what works and what doesn’t. And I don’t deliberately avoid marketability, they just come out that way. But neither do I make any effort to stay within the main stream of fantasy/science fiction/horror/weird. I go where I want to go, where my story takes me. And I give no consideration to strive to make my story fit a clear-cut genre, though I recognize that it can’t be easily classed as one thing or another.

When I have a story that I really want to tell, like Stroad’s Cross for example, I don’t want to force it into a mold created by salesmen. I want it to be my story, not theirs. And so once again I am limited to three choices. Not write it at all, write it and put it on a shelf, or write it and publish it myself. I’ll be doing a lot of that.

Self-Publishing

I began self-publishing with Cat Tales, in 2010, originally Kindle only, as an experiment, just to see if I could do it. I found that I could, at no cost, and was quite pleased. (I did an Ogden House paper edition in 2016, to give to people at conventions.) I did nothing more until A Closet for a Dragon, in 2014. Technicaly it’s an Ogden House book, though it doesn’t bear the imprint. I didn’t know much about book design back then.

In many ways, I would rather have a traditional publisher, and I tried to find one for several of my books, using Ralan [Ralan.com] and Duotrope [duotrope.com] for my research. I read through publisher’s guidelines, looking for someone who was interested books like mine, but I was extremely frustrated. The first problem was that my books were either too short, or too long, and they wouldn’t even look at them.

Sturgis is only 80,000 words, too short for anybody except certain kinds of romance publishers. A writer, who I otherwise respect, asked me why I didn’t just add 10,000 words to it. I thought about that, having already published it myself, but the story was complete as written. Adding more would have been adding puff. I refuse to do that. Readers recognize puff and fluff when they see it.

Stroad’s Cross was originally, after several revisions and development, about 225,000 words. I tightened it down to 137,000. The upper limit for those publishers whom I thought might want it was 125,000. But the only way I could reduce the story further would have been to cut scenes, or dialogue, or description, or characters. This version of the story was complete as written, and I didn’t want to cut off it feet to make it fit the bed.

The second problem was that in both cases, it was impossible to determin a single genre. Both had horrific elements. Both had supernatural elements. Both had something like magic/fantasy elements. Both had mysteries. Both were character studies. One had a bit of strong romance. And publishers insisted that I classify my stories, but it didn’t fit any of their categories, so they wouldn’t even look at them.

My other books had different problems, which made it difficult to submit for traditional publishing, Closet for a Dragon is a collection of early tales, and collections by unknown authors (despite Pursuit of Diana) don’t sell. Freefoot was another collection, of previously published Elfquest stories, for which I had gotten permission only to publish myself. Dead Hand is long at 161,000 words, is 92 scenes with 52 viewpoint characters, and again unclassifiable as to genre, containing horror, romance/erotica, mystery, adventure, crime, supernatural, spiritual, and other elements.

So I more or less had three choices. I could butcher my books to fit a publisher’s guidelines. I could put them on the shelf so they could gather dust. Or I could publish them myself, which is what I decided to do.

I’m glad I’m not Hemingway

I think I was in second grade when I started writing. The teacher put these lines up on the blackboard and told us to finish the poem.

“Where are you going little leaf/I hope you don’t meet any grief.”

Most people added a single couplet. Some added two. I added twenty couplets and a four-line ABAB stanza. It was shown all around school, and put on the bulletin board for a PTA meeting. I may still have it somewhere. My mother was pleased.

A few months later I was sitting in my father’s chair with the lapboard, writing something. My mother asked me what it was. It old her it was a poem. She said, “You’ve written one poem, why would you want to write another?”

Several years later I was writing stuff, ideas for stories, lists of things, I don’t remember. I wrote a lot of lists. My father asked what I was doing, and I told him I was working on a story, that I wanted to be a writer. He said, “You’re not Ernest Hemingway and you never will be.”

Many years later I actually read something by Hemingway. It could have been the first pages of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” I never got any further. I remembered what my father had told me, and if he had been still living I would have told him that he was right. And that I was grateful that I would never be like Hemingway. Because I did not like the way he wrote. Not at all. And I still don’t.

Let’s Talk About It

Writing is a major part of my life and I talk about it a lot. I speak on writing panels at SF conventions. I run two workshops at cons, about how to start, and about how to plot. I have posted to my Facebeek page about how I work, and the things I’ve learned, and I’ll be reworking some of those to be included on my Books page, which is not yet brought up to date. I love to talk to people at conventions, to help those who want to write get started, and to encourage them to do so. I have read over 120 books on writing and authorship, about a dozen of which I have found useful, a few of which I have thrown away. But the most important thing I learned was from writer autobiographies, who tell how they did it, not how to do it. And that is that every one does it differently.

Writing is Difficult

It is demanding, it is frustrating, and sometimes it is disappointing. Some of the people who take my workshops decide that they don’t really want to become writers after all. And that’s fine, their energies are better spent doing something more satisfying and rewarding.

But when I succeed, I have created something out of nothing, just a spark of an idea which is completely intangible. From that spark comes a world, people, events, desires, all of which seem so real to the person reading it, that for a little while the reader loses track of the real world.

After all that effort of creation, I had to take some time off. Maybe a year, or a month, or a day — or an hour. And then a new spark comes and, despite all the hardships of the last time, I do it all over again.