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.”

Empty Places, Part 2

In case you missed it, “Empty Places, Part 2” as performed by LeVar Burton launched on July 4. I use the term “performed” advisedly, because that’s a distinction I learned early on. Back when I was attending more sf/fantasy conventions, I was fortunate enough to attend a reading by Parke Godwin. I’d been to a few readings before that and I’d always enjoyed them, but this one was a revelation–Parke Godwin was an actor before he turned to writing, and he approached his readings the way an actor would approach a play–as a performance. The characters each had their own voices, the inflections were placed where he wanted them, the emphasis of one word over another precise and intentional. I was transfixed, and it was a lesson I always tried to bring to my own readings when it came time to do them. I never had the actor’s skillset to pull it off in the same way, but changing my approach improved my readings greatly.

LeVar Burton has those skills. Listening to him perform “Empty Places” Parts 1 and 2 was almost as if I was hearing the story for the first time, and I wrote the darn thing. I can’t recommend “LeVar Burton Reads” highly enough.

LeVar Burton Reads

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.

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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). “

Review: MORT by Terry Pratchett

Mort by Terry Pratchett, Harper edition 2013.

Death takes a holiday. Sort of.

It’s no secret that Death (an anthropomorphic personification, as he refers to himself) was one of Terry Pratchett’s favorite Discworld characters. Playing with Death for fun is, well, fun, but with a very serious subtext that’s never very far from the open and flat-out surface text. Where Death is concerned for each and every one of us, the last laugh is always on you. Regardless, Death as personified in Discworld is, in a sense, a human projection who is not human and can never quite get a handle on what being human is all about. He is curious about mortals. Or to paraphrase Sir Terry himself, “He doesn’t quite know where we’re coming from, though he does know where we’re going.” Continue reading

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