True Things

A wise writer (@saladinahmed) once tweeted something to the effect that the plot of any story will fall apart if you look at it closely enough, because it was a story, not real life. What wasn’t said, naturally, is that the difference between a story and real life is that a story, at least within the confines of its internal logic, has to make sense. Real life, as Mark Twain once famously observed, suffers no such limitations.

So we’re automatically at a disadvantage at least in that regard, trying to write a story where the reader, at least for the space of time they’re reading it, can forget that they’re not really living a story but reading words on a page or screen. We like to talk about something called “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief,” which is the ability to do just that. We like to talk about it because, to a fiction writer trying to reach a fiction reader, it’s beyond important—it’s absolutely necessary. All fiction readers have it or they wouldn’t be reading stories. Some people, I’ve discovered, have this ability to lesser degrees or even not at all. I vividly remember doing a signing where an older lady approached and asked if my books were about “True Things.” It took me a while to realize she wasn’t talking about non-fiction. She was talking about stories that mirrored and reflected, to a greater or lesser degree, the sort of things she saw and experienced every day. Give such a reader a story by, say, Ray Bradbury or Octavia Butler and the immediate reaction would be something along the lines of “This isn’t real!”

Of course not. It’s a story. If it’s a good one there’s Truth in it, but real? No. Then again, the “True Things” which she enjoyed weren’t real either, but try to explain that? No thanks. I’ve seen that lack go even further, and those readers only read news stories or biographies or, well, words on a page which claim to mirror actual events. Nothing speculated, nothing made up. It’s not their fault, but for whatever reason, they lack the toolset for anything else. I’ve tried to imagine what that’s like and the closest I can get is to picture a situation where you hear people talking about different shades of red when you’ve been colorblind all your life. You’d think they were talking nonsense, and from your perspective, you’d be right.

Anyway, to get back to my colleague’s point, no plot is perfect. There’s always a hole somewhere. If we do our job right it’s a little one, hardly noticeable or missed completely if the narrative pulls the reader along as it should. There’s a reason it’s called The Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It’s primarily our job not to muck with it as we spin our stories. Anything that throws the reader out of the story, even for an instant, makes them less inclined to trust you next time, if there even is a “next time.”

There will be holes, and inconsistencies, and whatnot. That’s inevitable. What’s not inevitable is that they will ruin the story. If the story works, the question on the reader’s mind will be “What happens next?” rather than “WTF was that?”

It’s our job to make sure the reader’s concern is the former and not the latter. If anyone ever said this was easy, that was not a “True Thing.”

Readers and Writers

I don’t know of any writer who wasn’t a reader first. Once we learn how it’s done we tend to do a lot of it. When I was a kid give me a summer day with no chores pending and a book or two which I hadn’t read yet and I was a happy guy. Such idylls don’t last. Soon it’s off to work, or for the luckier, college first, then work, but the result is the same. The leisure time which helped make reading such a joy is likely gone. If you remain a reader, you fit it in when you can.

Or worse, you become a writer. Then reading strictly for pleasure is all but gone. Unless you have an independent source of income or a spouse with a job and a very forbearing attitude, you’re still going to have to work for a living, and still be there for your family, and still everything else involved in having a life yet make the writing work however you can. So that reduced slice of leisure time for reading? Yeah. Much smaller slice now.

Not good, right? Heh. It’s about to get even worse than that. Some poor sods find that it’s almost impossible to read fiction while you’re trying to write it. The only time you can lose yourself in a novel or story collection is when you’re not actively involved in your own projects. Good for reading and keeping up, lousy for getting your work done. Now, even if you’re one of the lucky sods who dodge that particular bullet, there’s another waiting, and it’s simply this—in order to write convincingly about any subject, even if what you’re writing is almost completely made up, there’s going to be research involved, which also involves—you guessed it—reading. Which means you’re going to spend that bitty slice of reading time reading only what you need to read, not necessarily what you want to read.

Yes, this sucks, unless you get really lucky and discover that doing research is one of your favorite things to do. In which case you will still get to enjoy your reading, it’s just going to be mostly non-fiction. For instance, that review of Terry Pratchett’s MORT I did recently? Yeah. I picked that book up at Flights of Fantasy Bookstore in Albany over a year ago. I just nowish got it into the reading queue, which is a good thing because my writing projects are currently dictating a solid shift in that queue. Let me run it down a bit:

The Encyclopedia of Fairies, Katherine Briggs, Pantheon, 1976.
Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio, Pu Songling, Penguin Classics, 2006.
(originally from about 1700CE).
A Field Guide to Demons…and Other Subversive Spirits, Carol & Dina Mack,
1998
In Search of the Supernatural, (original title, Sou-Shin Chi, or The Account of Seeking Spirits) Kan Pao,w/Kenneth DeWoskin & J.I. Crump, Jr, translators.
Original compilation 220 CE.
The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and Other Little People, Thomas
Keightly, Grammercy Books, 1978 (orig. ed. The Fairy Mythology, 1880.
A Field Guide to the Little People, Nancy Arrowsmith with George Moorse,
Macmillan 1977.

And that list is not yet complete because I haven’t yet found everything I think I need. Suffice to say I’ll be concentrating in two separate (?) areas for the foreseeable future. I will get very little fiction reading done, which sucks. Yet I will be reading non-fiction on subjects I enjoy (whether the subjects themselves are fiction is another matter), and that most emphatically does not suck. True, the tension between writer/reader is never quite satisfied, especially when the writer and the reader are the same person. But sometimes, you get close.

#########

Speaking of reading, you can skip reading and have a story read to you by LeVar Burton (Star Trek, Roots, Reading Rainbow, and do I really have to tell you who he is?). The first three episodes of “LeVar Burton Reads” are now available for free on iTunes and Stitcher, including my own “Empty Places, Part 1.”

Here’s the description from the podcast:

“An accomplished thief is approached by a wizard who wants to send him on an unusual mission. The two embark on a journey together, matching wits along the way. “Empty Places” was collected in FANTASY: THE BEST OF THE YEAR (2005). “

LeVar Burton Reads

I’ve told this story before, but in the current circumstance it bears repeating:

In an earlier version of the Writer’s Group With No Name we had a member who was working hard on a romance novel. We’d read excerpts and thought it promising, but the story wasn’t coming quickly or easily for her. In the meantime, most of the other members of the group were working on short fiction, getting stuff finished, and a few of us were selling. At times the meetings would turn into gripe sessions about slow markets, slower payments, incomprehensible editorial decisions, the usual. All true and the bane of working writers for practically ever, but our romance writer, working but still with nothing in shape to show an editor, was not impressed with the bitching. Continue reading

“In Memory of Jianhong, Snake-Devil”

I’ve been dropping annoyingly vague hints here and there, but now it’s all out in the open—I’ve apparently started a new fantasy series. I didn’t really plan to do it and I certainly didn’t think I was ready, but then I’m not always in charge. I know writers who strongly disagree with that perspective. “I’m in charge and my characters do what I say.” And that’s often true even with me, as in sometimes I am and sometimes they do. But for me it usually works out better when the characters do what they want and I just follow closely and mark it all down, then cut out the bit where they stared at the horizon for an hour just for the hell of it and add the bit where one of them tripped and fell into the icy stream. Just for the hell of it. Or maybe because they deserved it…ahem. Where was I?

Right, the new series. The first one, “In Memory of Jianhong, Snake-Devil” is now up in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #226. I’ve already written and sold the second one and started blocking scenes for the third. As I said, after Yamada I wanted to do some stand-alone stories, since some of my favorites of my own work have been books or stories with no befores or afters, except what was implied in the story itself. I once attempted a few befores and afters in the case of Jin from All the Gates of Hell, because I liked the character so much, but none of them worked out. She was done, and thus so was I.

Pan Bao and Jing were different. I’ve had them in my head for a while, wondering what they were about. I first had him pictured as a bumbling Taoist priest kept successful (and alive) by his far more competent daughter, and there are still echoes of that, but the man himself turned out to be quite different. Then Mei Li showed up, and well, that was that. So it’s a series. I hope you like it. If you don’t I’ll write it anyway.

It’s not like I’m in charge.

Waiting

Waiting again. This time for the furnace technician. The same boiler that serves our radiators also feeds the hot water heater, of which at the moment we have none (hot water, that is). So. Waiting. I should be better at it by now. In this avocation you certainly get a lot of practice.

The advice everyone hears, once a piece of writing has been submitted, is: Don’t Wait! Write! It’s good advice so far as it goes. For one thing, it keeps you doing what you should be doing anyway. For another, there’s a good chance you’ll have a finished piece ready to submit elsewhere before the first one sells or comes flying back (Figuratively, as almost no one does that now. It was a paper thing.) Never having to pin all your hopes on just one possibility, which may (likely will) disappoint you. Doing your work, also a coping mechanism for waiting.

But you wait anyway, despite all the defenses and deflections and denials. There’s that one market you really, really want to crack before you die. There’s a special piece that you just know is the best thing you’ve ever done and you want it Out There! Rather than sitting in some editor’s queue. And if it gets bought, then you’re waiting again, until it’s actually out there, which means there are lead times and what’s bought in March doesn’t get published until October, if you’re lucky. For books it’s even longer as a rule. Before you even get to that point there are edits to get through, and then you’re waiting (again) for editorial approval of the changes, or more corrections and the process starts again…. Then there’s the gap between buying and the check arriving, and don’t get me started on that.

Waiting.

I seem to be living in reverse. When I was younger, I had more patience. I find it’s a scarcer commodity as time marches on. Too conscious of the passage of time, too aware that the time to get things done and find whatever it is you’re trying to find in your work, in yourself, is very finite. Any time spent waiting feels like wasted time, even when you’re not just waiting, you’re also waiting. There’s no real escape from it. Just make it share the time it wants to take from you with whatever doesn’t involve waiting. You can’t get rid of it, but at least you can make it earn its keep.