It’s All Real … sort of …

One of the things I emphasize to my workshop students, is that the stories they write have to be grounded in reality. No matter how fantastic, how futuristic, how — well, unreal the final story is, it has to start from reality, so that it feels real in its own terms. 

It’s like building a house. You can build any kind you want, from a shack to a ludicrous castle, but if there’s no foundation in the solid earth, the house will fail.

If you set a story in a real place, such as the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, you describe it as it is. But you can make changes, for the sake of the story. In The Crivit Experiment, I put a building where there was none, so that I could blow it up. People who were familiar with the campus really enjoyed recognizing the place. People who are not familiar with the campus can still believe in it, because everything around it is real.

If you have an alien person, you must have some knowledge of biology, physiology, human and animal behavior, so that you don’t make gross mistakes, such as by putting eyes where, in a real animal, they would have been vulnerable to predation, and would never have evolved any kind of civilization. Or by having limbs that wouldn’t actually work according to physical laws. You also have to give your alien motives that suit the species, and aren’t just copied from human beings. You have to make sure that the most fundamental of needs — such as breathing, fear of being eaten, need for a reproductive mate, even eating and sleeping — are as they really would be, if such a being were real. There is no need to show these needs, but if you don’t understand them, your person’s behavior will feel subtly wrong.

Some things, such as faster-than-light star drives, have no foundation in reality at all, they are only the products of wishful thinking, and are, in a way, as fantastic as flying to the moon pulled up by bottles of rising dew. But we all know that, and don’t think about it, but just accept it as something to enable us to tell the stories we want to tell. And then, after all, we can still extrapolate from what we know of physics, so that we can portray what such traveling might be like, if it were real. If you don’t know even the rudiments of real physics, nobody will believe you, and they will reject your story.

If you step too far outside of reality, as I have done on several occasions, let your reader know that you are doing it on purpose, in order to tell your story, and not by accident out of ignorance. If you have snow (in the northern hemisphere) in June, at least say that it is bizarre weather for which nobody has an explanation, and let it go at that. If your heroine goes up into a dark attic, when nobody in their right mind would even pull down the stair, just to find out what’s making the groans and thumps coming from up there, she has to have a powerful motive that over-rides the most basic of fears. Mere curiosity is not enough. 

You can, in fact, do anything you want in your story. You are, after all, the Creator of its world. But no matter how far removed from the familiar your world is, if its roots are firmly in the real world, your story will be plausible and believable.

When I Get the Thrill

My first rule of first drafts is to put everything down. I wind up with a pile of raw stuff, but if I don’t put it down when I think of it, I’ll loose it. It won’t be there when I want to work on it later. Having done that, I take this pile of stuff, and do of things with it. 

I cut out whatever does not serve the story. I tighten by finding better ways to say things that take fewer words. I develop lines of story or character or setting further, and show instead of tell whenever possible. I expand by adding scenes or descriptions or dialogue that make the story more complete. I fill in holes when I discover that I have glossed over something or left something out. I do special passes to add weather, physical senses, time of day, lighting, mood, and so on. I reorganize phrases, sentences, paragraphs, or even some times whole scenes, so that the story flows according to the character’s experience. I revise dialogue, description, action that isn’t clear, so that it can be understood. And sometimes I have to rewrite completely, by throwing out what doesn’t work and doing it all over again. 

But just doing a second draft, or even several drafts, isn’t enough. I have to read it again, perhaps several times, with certain specific objectives, such as narrative language vs dialogue; progression of time, place, or weather; phrasing for fiction rather than non-fiction; checking continuity; phrasing for visualization, clarity, brevity; checking for grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, word choice. Then I read for story, for narrative flow, temporal flow, progression and growth, strong opening, satisfying ending, and so on. And then I read for performance, as if I were reading aloud to a critical audience, or for books on tape, to catch anything that makes me stumble.

If at any time, anything makes me stop, feels rough, or just feels wrong, I have to fix it. If I read it through, and it all flows, then it’s probably okay. If, on the nth reading, I’m not bored with it, but enjoy reading it yet again, then I know it is good. If, when I read it, I feel a thrill, then it’s damn near perfect.

At least, that’s what I try for.

Paying for the Privilege

A long time ago, when I was in my forties, I had a lot more creative energy than I do now. I’ve always had more imagination than I knew what to do with, but I no longer have as much energy as I need to do anything with it. Back then I could work on my fiction six, eight, or more hours a day. These days, if I get a full four hours in, I’m doing well. I also no longer have the strength to move refrigerators or pianos, as I did even seven years ago, and I don’t like carrying forty pound bags of kitty litter. This happens when you get older. Along with being startled by what you look like when you accidentally see yourself in a mirror.

But for my money, getting older is a good thing.

Someone once asked me, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be young again?” I told him that I wouldn’t mind having the strength, the endurance, even the hair of when I was younger, but there was no way I would trade in my experience just for the sake of youth. There are too many memories. There are too many mistakes I learned how to not make a second time. I acquired skills at being a writer which I will fight to the death to keep. Not to mention all the social skills, which I keep on practicing and improving.

So, no, I don’t want to be young again. I don’t like the physical deterioration, the loss of functions, the pains and aches. Who would? But there’s a price for everything. TANSTAFL, as Heinlein said — There’s no such thing as a free lunch. And I figure that bearing up under all consequences of aging is the price that I am more than willing to pay for the privilege of getting older.

And I intend to get a lot older yet.

Completely Free Imagination

I do a plotting workshop at most conventions, as a way to help beginning writers — and sometimes published writers who have forgotten a thing or two — learn one way to develop the plot for a whole story, from beginning to end, starting with just an idea. It’s an interactive lecture, and I bring up sixteen points that every writer should think about, such as obstacles, strengths, helpers, beginnings and endings, and so on. The first thing I have people do is think of a character, because without a character, you can’t have a story. (Literature, maybe, or fiction somehow, but not Story.) I give plenty of suggestions about how to do that, and what I’m looking for, then I ask them to tell us about it. Not everybody does.

One of the participants at MystiCon this past February was an eleven year old girl. Her mother was with her, and supported her. I asked her if she had a character, and she said, “A little man who lives in the dog food.” She laughed. All those who could hear her couldn’t help but laugh along with her. Her enthusiasm, her pleasure, and her unhindered imagination and creativity, continued throughout the two-hour workshop. She was happy, enjoying herself, being silly in the best possible way.

She addressed every prompt I gave, and every response was weirder than the last. But they all hung together, and at the end she had enough for a complete and amazingly bizarre story. The last question I asked was, what has changed as a consequence of the story. She said, “The little man and the frog princess got married and had puppies.” And she laughed. It was wonderful. I thought about it a lot later, and told a lot of people about it. I told her mother that, if she finished the story, she should let me know. Somehow I think that the girl had said everything she wanted to say in that workshop, and I’ll never hear from her. And that’s okay.

There have been times when I couldn’t see where my story was going, or I felt that it was boring. One time last year I had cause to think about the unfettered imagination I had indulged in when I was young, and thought that, when I seemed to be running dry, I should just let myself go. I haven’t yet had an opportunity or a need to put it into practice, but thinking about that little girl makes me determined to try.

When we are young, we don’t worry about editors, or publishers, or readers. We just want to make stuff up, and the weirder the better. It’s a talent all children have. But as we grow older, we tend to lose our spontaneous creativity, while we focus on developing our skills as story tellers. We worry about what people will think, what editors will think, and will it find a publisher, and will it be at all successful in the marketplace.

But this little girl showed me, and the rest of us, what could be done, if we didn’t worry about all that stuff. At least, not for the first draft. I’m going to work harder at liberating my childhood imagination, and then apply my acquired skills to what I come up with, instead of focusing on those skills first, at the expense of the pleasure and wonder of pure creation. Looking back at my work, all my best ideas, scenes, and characters have come to me that way. I want to learn how to be able to do it again.

Conventions and Enthusiasm

I started going to science fiction conventions in 1978 or ‘79. I was a new professional, I had sold my first book, but it had not yet been released. It was very exciting, and humbling.

I did little more than just attend conventions for many years. I was, after all, a very minor writer. One time I asked C. J. Cherryh how she got to be a guest at so many cons. She told me, “I asked.” I took her advice, was accepted several times. I had better credentials by then. I spoke on a number of panels, mostly about writing, and tried to make a contribution to the con, and never felt that it was enough. Now I’m an old hand at conventions — I speak on panels, moderate panels, lead workshops, introduce guests, and indulge in lots of conversations.

I took away a lot more than I gave during the first five years or so. Just being there energized me, being among other writers of all statures, among fans, among readers. I would go home full of energy, eager to get to work, running over with ideas. That energy would last for days, sometimes weeks. Conventions made me enthusiastic to do what I wanted to do, which was to be a writer, to write and publish my stories, and to improve all my writing skills, and especially my social skills. These days I come home exhausted. It takes me until Tuesday to recover. After all, I am significantly older now.

Writers typically work alone, which is as it should be, if you’re going to get anything done. But working at home means that I don’t get out and meet people — other than, say, store clerks, many of whom will talk with me for a minute or so. For many, that’s no problem. But if you have no peers to talk with, you can’t advance as quickly as you might if you could share shop-talk with your fellow writers. Just being with people isn’t enough. Being with people who share your interests, have different but related experiences, and have greater insights gives you a larger context in which to grow. During those early years at conventions, I grew a lot. And I’m still growing.

There are other kinds of conventions besides science fiction and fantasy. I know little about them. I know there are conventions and conferences for mystery writers, romance writers, horror writers specifically, and western writers.

I once attended a university sponsored weekend conference for literary writers. One of the invited guests, who had won several awards for his science fiction, didn’t want to run a workshop on how to write it, so he asked me to do it. I still have my notes, and could do it again. It would take four to six hours, depending on attendance. Every other panel and lecture and round table was about literature, criticism, and academics — and very little about best sellers.

Whatever you write, whatever branch or field or genre, it’s a good idea to find groups who write the same thing, with whom you can talk face to face. I don’t mean workshops, that’s something else, I mean conferences, conventions. E-mailing, messaging, even talking on line is fine, but it just can’t beat face to face. Which is why I sometimes attend conventions at which I am not a guest. I still come away energized. There is a lot more to learn.

Conventions and Conversations

I attended Mysticon, in Roanoke, VA, the weekend of February 23-25. It was an easy convention, with only my Writers’ Workshop Saturday morning, the follow-up Sunday morning, and my Plotting Workshop Saturday afternoon. I had a few social commitments; with a friend who was called away after only a few minutes, another friend and an acquaintance with whom I shared fine whiskey for an hour and a half on Saturday night, and two good friends with whom I had supper earlier though they mostly talked shop about the convention, which was okay. The rest of the time I wandered the halls and cruised the dealers’ room, looking for conversations. Which I found in plenty, with fans, friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

This has to do with writing because it is how I refresh and add to my knowledge of human behavior, which is essential for being able to portray my characters realistically. Most of the people I talked to at the con, maybe a hundred or more, were just ordinary people (aside from being sf fans and readers), but then so are my characters, when they’re not in their story. No two people are alike, each is a part of a huge three-dimensional spectrum of personalities and behaviors. I absorb it all without thinking about it.

And then, when I need a character for one of my stories — almost always novels these days — I have that huge database of humanity in the back of my head to draw on. I never use real people as my characters — with one exception. But when my characters move or talk or think or act, I know that they are behaving like a real person would, since I’ve seen it somewhere. It’s all real. Unlike in some movies, where people hold flashlights backwards (I asked a retired police officer about that, and police never do that). Or go somewhere they know they shouldn’t — attics, cellars, alleys — without any true motives.

My characters grow, sometimes from the smallest seed, fed and nurtured by that huge compost heap of what I know about real human behavior. And like any good, rich compost heap, I have no idea where any element comes from, no idea who contributed what, I just know that I witnessed it somewhere, and it is real.

I am a Writer. Or something.

I am a writer. I have published a few novels of science fiction and fantasy, though sometimes it’s not easy to tell them apart. And a few stories, some collected. And some non-fiction, in which I have little further interest.

I also have run workshops at SF conventions, where I try to help people learn about writing, about how to get started, how to structure a whole story (or at least one way to do it), and what they have done well and where they can improve.

I talk to people about the things I have learned about writing, particuarly about writing fiction, and about what I am still learning. Almost everything I know has been learned through personal experience, mostly by doing it the wrong way and learning from that, rather than from reading books. I have found only a few books to be very useful.

But really I am a story-teller. I don’t write because I want to write, but because I have a story in my head that I have to get out. There are characters whom I want to make real. There are places I want to explore, to experience, if only vicariously, since most of them don’t exist in the real world. I have ideas for situations that present problems, and solutions that have consequences, and which, most importantly, offer growth. There are things which I want or need to learn about myself, which can only be done by creating an alternate reality and capturing it in a story.

So I am a writer. Because daytime fantasies about any of these things is ephemeral, and once thought, they just disappear. Sometimes I can’t remember much about the beginning of such a fantasy by the time I get to the end, which might take only a few minutes.

Most of my daytime fantasies go nowhere. They are fragments, though sometimes I indulge in them for years, but they are just smoke. It’s only when I can discover the story which lies behind those fantasies, or which connects those fantasies, or which fleshes them out that I become a writer, a creator, making something real out of nothing. It’s only by putting the words down, on paper, or on the computer, that makes them at all real.

Words on paper, after all, are real, even if the person or situation or place described is totally imaginary. Books are real, containing those vague ideas which have been developed and perfected (one hopes), and have been expressed in a way that makes sense to me later, and that (one hopes) may entertain anyone else who reads them.

It’s not the words on paper, it’s the story they tell which is important to me.

Image, not Intellect

I’ve covered this subject before, but it was brought home to me again while I was working on chapter 21 of Heart of the Fey. A crucial geological detail, essential to the plot, helps explain why the Heart had been lost for so long, and gets my hero on the right track to at last find it. If there were no waterfall, no vanished ford, no barrier between north and south, then there would be no story.

My problem was that, while I had worked it all out intellectually — times, places, history, why they’re there, where to go next — I discovered when I was revising it for first and second read-alouds that it made no sense. It didn’t work physically, geologically, or any way at all. Because I had only intellectualized it, I hadn’t actually visualized it. And that became clear while I was trying to write what my characters saw, because I couldn’t see it, and therefore it didn’t make any sense. I had to stop, and rework the map, and rework the history, and rework other stuff, until I could see it as if it were a video. Now it all makes sense, but it took me over two days to fix one paragraph, and to deal with the consequences of those changes.

Why go to all the trouble?

Because glitches like that can ruin a book, no matter how good the rest of it is. Some time ago I was reading a non-fiction book, which I cannot remember now, but I was interested in the development of the author’s argument, and I got to the last three pages, where he was supposed to at last have it all come together and prove his point. But it was as if I were reading notes instead of completed text. Nothing came together and all, the feeble point he did make sort of contradicted what he had promised, and he lost me completely.

I was terribly disappointed because, whatever it was he was trying to say, the ideas had been good, and worth my time. But the let-down, because of a terrible glitch in logic or reason or follow-through or whatever, was so bad that I put the book away and immediately forgot it. Except my frustration and disappointment. I can’t find the book again.

My wife was reading a novel by an author she enjoyes, but somewhere in there Lady Rutherford was called Lady Blair, or something like that, and the sister of a nobleman wanted her son to inherit her brother’s title, which was not possible — nephews can not inherit — and Diane just dropped out of the story. She finished it, but she wasn’t in it any more. She told me about that while I was working on my glitch, but she can’t remember the author or the story.

And If I didn’t fix this one scene, readers would be ejected from my story, might not finish it, and might even forget what the story was about, except for the glitch. And might decide not to read anything more of mine.

I have a rule. If I write something in a story, which I discover later takes me where I didn’t expect to go, I will work with what I have and keep going. So when I found that the waterfall into the river couldn’t really be that way, I felt compelled to work with it anyway, and to somehow make the story fit. And I couldn’t. Geologically, it made no sense.

But I have another rule, given me by David Gerrold, and that is, whatever you write must serve the story. The story can’t serve the false image, the bad idea, the gross error in creation or research. Everything must serve the story, not the other way around. So despite the first rule, I knew that I had cast aside what I had done wrong before I could go on. Or my readers would discover how wrong it was, and put down the book. And might remember how wrong it was when they were looking at something else by me.

The details of the error are not important here, only in the context of Heart of the Fey, where they eventually affect and color almost the whole story, sometimes retrospectively. The details of the correction are not important here, only that I made myself take the time, almost two whole days, to fix a paragraph, and deal with the consequences of that fix. What is important is that I had forgotten that, if I can’t see it, I can’t write it, especially when it comes to physical description. What I had written was only what my intellect had created, and no matter how interesting that was, it was wrong.

Which is why I draw maps. I draw floor plans. I create timelines. I chart people sitting at a table so that they aren’t talking through each other.

And when I corrected the falls, the geology, the history, all of which fit the story so far, I made the waterfalls more spectacular than they had been before. I made the mystery, of where the Heart had been lost, more logical when it was finally traced and found. It made my characters’ reasoning actually work.

So then. Make use of what I’ve got, even if it takes me somewhere unexpected. But if it takes me into a black dead end, work it until it serves the story, whatever that takes.

I hope to finish Heart of the Fey some time this spring or summer. We’ll see.

Every Story is Different

For me, every story I write, long or short, is different. Even those which seem to be much the same, like the three Rikard Braeth novels, or the six Elf Quest stories, have subtle differences in structure, or style, or depth. This becomes more and more true as time goes by.

Right now I’m working on a story, number two of twelve, for a collection I call Star Kings. It’s an old idea, which came to me some years after Elf Quest, when I wanted to write more stories like those, but set them in a different place and time and about a different people. It took me years to figure out how I had made the Elf Quest stories work.

I had just finished the antepenultimate read-through of Heart of the Fey, reading aloud for text, and I needed a break before my last two read-throughs, for story and performance, and since I had one Star Kings story, writing a second one seemed like a good idea.

Star Kings takes place in an unknown future, the technology so high that it can’t be described let alone explained. But what makes it difficult is that, unlike all my other stories, long or short, it has to be constructed, not grown. No part of it, aside from human nature, is drawn from the familiar. I invented the giant space station city, the star-dive spindleships, the Star Kings’ culture, and the cultures of the aliens with which they share the Cold Star Cluster, and the Great Cloud which hides and protects them the civilizations in the limb of the galaxy. I do draw on what I know abuot the real world, but in Star Kings it’s all different. What makes it like my Elf Quest stories is, that these are about ordinary people, doing ordinary things in their own bizarre context.

I am also having to construct the stories themselves, one at a time, and not just let them happen. Stories, after all, are constrained and shaped by their larger context, the world, the over-all situation, and this time all of these things are being built. It’s a very different way of working for me, though many books on writing have advice on how and why you should do it that way.

When I finish story two, I’ll go back to Heart of the Fey, which, despite the maps and the research and the creation, is a story that grew. Then after that is published, I’ll do story three for Star Kings. Then I’ll do as much more as I can with The Empty House, which is perfectly organic. If I need a break from that, I’ll construct another Star Kings story. And so on until the whole collection is done. It will take a while.

I will never write anything like this again. I would rather grow my stories than build them. But I’ve been thinking about Star Kings for years. I have a handle on it now. I have sketches for all twelve stories in a perfect arc from first to last.

And Darcy has already done the cover.

He or She — or They

Ever since I wrote The Eye in the Stone, I have tried to tackle the problem of “he or she” versus “they.” If the pronoun refers to a single unknown person, e.g. “Someone stood in the doorway, in total silhouette,” I can simply use he, or she, if the gender is apparent to the narrator, even if the person can’t be identified. If the gender is not obvious, I may use “they” instead of “he or she.” This is a rather clumsy example, I know, but it will serve.

I have tried very hard to avoid using “he” as a neuter pronoun. One of the conventions I have used is “they.” Certain purists will object that “he or she … they” does not agree in number. They should also note that “he or she … he” does not agree in gender.

The real problem, of course, is that in English today, we do not have a true neuter pronoun, other than “it,” and I think almost everyone will agree that “he or she … it” is an abomination. After all, we do not mean that he or she is a neuter it, but that the person we refer to is either male or female but not specified. And not neither or both.

There is precedent for the use of “they” as a neuter pronoun, to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1971), i.e.: They … signification 2. Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, not, etc, or applicable to one of either sex (= ‘he or she’).

Examples of this usage date from 1526 to 1874. “They” has been used as a neuter pronoun by both common speakers and by literary figures. It is the natural thing to do. It may be the best solution we have.

Today, only a pedant will pick on the disagreement in number, though anybody can be pedantic at times (as I have sometimes been on other subjects, not always seriously). In current social consciousness, the problem of sexual equality and gender chauvinism is much more important than mere number. If you can think of a better solution, let me know. A better one, not just a different one.

I would like to refer the reader to Handbook of Non-sexist Writing, by Casey Miller and Kate Swift (Lippincott & Crowell, 1980). It is a calm, well thought out, sympathetic discussion of the problem, which every reader, writer, speaker, and publisher should read.